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June 2, 2022
January/February 2016
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Thursday, January 14, 2016
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INF Treaty Impasse: Time for Russian Action

January/February 2016

By Richard W. Fieldhouse

Eileen Malloy, head of the arms control implementation unit at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, attends a ceremony marking the destruction of Soviet missiles under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the Saryozek site in Kazakhstan on May 11, 1990. (Photo credit: American Foreign Service Association)The U.S. government has determined that Russia has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). So far, the Russian government has simply denied any violation and refused to engage the United States in constructive discussions on the issue.

Moscow has made counteraccusations that the United States insists are intended to divert or deflect attention from Russia’s own violation.1 Despite repeated U.S. efforts to discuss and resolve its concerns with senior Russian officials, there are no signs of progress.

The Obama administration has been developing a response to the violation over the last year, but Congress is pressing for stronger action. With the upcoming presidential election and the pressure from Congress for a forceful, near-term response, the political circumstances in the United States could push the dispute in a direction that makes it more dangerous for both sides, as well as for U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. To avoid such a mutually undesirable outcome, Russia should use the remaining period of the Obama administration to work toward a constructive resolution of this serious problem.

Without visible progress toward a resolution, it seems likely that any future U.S. president, particularly a Republican president, will feel a need to take additional steps to respond to Russia’s INF Treaty violation. Such moves could increase the risk of a nuclear confrontation of a type that has not been seen since the Cold War ended.

Fortunately, there is nothing inevitable about a deterioration in nuclear security and stability. These are matters that will be decided by the governments.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States each deployed hundreds of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe that the other side saw as an unacceptable security threat. Eventually, that confrontation led the two governments to conclude the INF Treaty.

The potential consequences of the current standoff could include the termination of the INF Treaty or an action-reaction cycle of military deployments that increases the threat of nuclear confrontation and instability. Given these possibilities, it is important to examine the key elements of this dispute to understand why it would likely grow worse over time and to begin considering how both sides might approach resolution to avoid a return to increased nuclear confrontation and insecurity.

The INF Treaty Violation

The July 2014 arms control compliance report by the Department of State contained the first public exposition of the U.S. assessment of Russia’s actions. The report stated that “[t]he United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km [kilometers] to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”2 In its compliance analysis section, the report enumerates each provision of the INF Treaty relevant to the determination of the violation.

The June 2015 compliance report, which reaffirmed the previous determination, included an additional detail: “The United States determined the cruise missile developed by the Russian Federation meets the INF Treaty definition of a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, and as such, all missiles of that type, and all launchers of the type used to launch such a missile, are prohibited under the provisions of the INF Treaty.”3 To avoid any ambiguity or disputes about potential differences such as range, capability, or purpose within a prohibited type of missile or its launcher, the INF Treaty says that if any type of missile or launcher meets the definition of a prohibited item, then all such items, regardless of any potential variations or differences, “shall be considered to be” that type of prohibited item, even if they have not been demonstrated or tested for that purpose, and thus must be eliminated.4

The report also stated that “[t]he United States noted concerns about the Russian Federation’s compliance with the INF Treaty in earlier, classified versions” of the compliance report.

Since the details of the violation remain classified, there has been some public uncertainty and speculation about which of several conceivable missile systems constitutes the violation. Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, has commented publicly to dispel some of the confusion and clarify the nature of the violation. In an interview in June 2015, she said, “At issue is a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500-5,500 kilometers. We are confident that the Russian government is aware of the missile to which we are referring.”5 In a September 2015 interview, she elaborated that she was “talking about a missile that has been flight-tested as a ground-launched cruise-missile system to these ranges that are banned under this treaty.”6 Around the same time, Anita Friedt, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear and strategic policy, said Russia had tested the “state-of-the-art” missile “at ranges capable of threatening most of [the] European continent and our allies in Northeast Asia.”7

On December 1, 2015, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade held a joint hearing on the violation and the administration’s response. The two Obama administration witnesses, Gottemoeller and Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, provided the most definitive description to date of the violation and of the U.S. response.

According to McKeon’s testimony, there “has been some speculation about what missile the United States is referring to and whether we have mistaken its testing for a treaty-compliant sea-based cruise missile.” The INF Treaty prohibits intermediate-range GLCMs but does not limit intermediate-range sea-launched cruise missiles or air-launched cruise missiles, which Russia and the United States each possess.

According to McKeon, “The evidence is conclusive. Russia has tested this ground-based system well into the ranges covered by the INF Treaty. We are talking about a real system and not a potential capability.”8

At the same hearing, Gottemoeller testified that, in discussions with Russian officials, the United States “made very clear that this is not a technicality, a one-off event, or a case of mistaken identity, but a serious Russian violation of one of the most basic obligations under the INF Treaty.”

Administration Response

The Obama administration’s planned response to the Russian violation of the INF Treaty has evolved over the last year. This is most clearly seen in the differences between congressional testimony of administration witnesses in 2014, the first year the administration made public its determination of Russia’s violation, and their testimony a year later at the hearing described above.

Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, shown above in an April 2015 photo, said at a congressional hearing on December 1, 2015, that Russia is committing “a serious…violation of one of the most basic obligations under the INF Treaty.” (Photo credit: CTBTO)At the December 10, 2014, hearing, which was a joint hearing of the same House Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services subcommittees, the administration witnesses stated they had two objectives: first, to bring Russia back into compliance with the treaty and keep the treaty in force, and second, to ensure that Russia does not gain any significant military advantage from its violation. Gottemoeller testified that because Russia “has been unwilling to acknowledge its violation or address our concerns,” the administration was “reviewing a series of diplomatic, economic, and military measures” to pursue these objectives.9

At the same hearing, McKeon said the United States has been having discussions with Russia on the subject since early 2013. He said he and his colleagues “have conveyed to Russian officials we expect the Russian Federation to cease any further development, testing, production, and deployment of this noncompliant system and to eliminate the missiles and launchers in a verifiable manner.” He reported that Russia has not provided any information or acknowledged “the existence of such a noncompliant cruise missile.”

He went on to explain that the U.S. Joint Staff had conducted a military assessment of the threat “if Russia were to deploy an INF Treaty-range ground-launched cruise missile in Europe or the Asia-Pacific region.” That assessment also led the administration “to review a broad range of military response options and consider the effect each option could have on convincing Russian leadership to return to compliance with the INF Treaty, as well as countering the capability of a Russian INF Treaty-prohibited system.”

Later in the hearing, McKeon explained that the military response options “fall into three broad categories: Active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces.” He acknowledged that the administration was looking at “a broad range of options, some of which would be compliant with the INF Treaty, some of which would not be.”

It is noteworthy that the administration is reviewing some options that would not comply with the INF Treaty. Because the administration’s policy is to comply strictly with the INF Treaty and preserve the pact’s viability by bringing Russia back into compliance, the noncompliant options are presumably part of a contingency planning process in the event that Russia does not return to compliance or the treaty is no longer in force and the United States seeks to counter the Russian violation.

Although McKeon’s list of possible responses was focused on Russia’s INF Treaty violation, he indicated that the administration was seeking to develop a comprehensive policy toward Russia regarding the numerous security concerns posed by Russian actions in areas beyond that violation, including Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

At the December 2015 hearing, Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said of the alleged Russian violation, “We are talking about a real system and not a potential capability.” (Photo credit: U.S. House Armed Services Committee Webcast)One year later, in his statement for the recent hearing, McKeon explained that the administration had broadened its response beyond the concerns about the INF Treaty violation: “Russia is not violating the INF Treaty in isolation from its overall aggressive behavior; therefore we concluded that our responses cannot focus solely on the INF Treaty.… Accordingly, we are developing a comprehensive response to Russian military actions and are committing to investments that we will make irrespective of Russia’s decision to return to compliance with the INF Treaty due to the broader strategic environment we face.”10 It is worth noting that Gottemoeller testified at the same hearing that Russia had begun testing the cruise missile in 2008, but the United States did not determine until late 2011 that it was a GLCM and thus prohibited by the INF Treaty. That indicates that Russia began its noncompliant behavior years before the current challenges McKeon discussed.

McKeon said the substantially broader response, current and planned, includes a number of features to improve the defense of Europe. Such a response, he testified, could serve the purpose of denying Russia a significant military advantage from its violation. He added, “[W]e are factoring Russia’s increased cruise missile capabilities, including its INF [Treaty] violation, into our planning.” In terms of the effect of the broader response on changing Russia’s behavior, including returning to compliance with the treaty, he said that Moscow “will see these activities and they will see them in our budget, and they will start to understand, we believe, that this response is not making them any more secure.”

At the same hearing, Gottemoeller summarized the security risk to Russia if it fails to come back into compliance: “We continue to remind Russia why it signed this treaty in the first place, and why Russia’s continued violation would only lead to a needless and costly action-reaction cycle to the detriment of Russia’s security.”

The significantly expanded Obama administration response will likely become the baseline U.S. response. If a future president wants to indicate increased frustration or resolve, he or she probably will feel a need to take action that goes beyond this baseline, such as developing one or more of the three categories of systems to counter the Russian INF Treaty violation. If there has been no progress toward resolution at that time, such stronger action will likely appear to be politically necessary, particularly if the president is a Republican. In the shorter term, Congress is likely to continue pushing for stronger action on the INF Treaty during the upcoming campaign year.

Congressional Action

As the two joint House hearings indicate, Congress has been heavily involved in this issue. At the December 2015 hearing, Gottemoeller said there had been some 60 briefings, hearings, and meetings with Congress on the subject.

Of course, the most important measure of the input of Congress on any issue is the legislation it enacts. In 2014, the year the United States made public its determination of Russia’s INF Treaty violation, Congress enacted two provisions on that subject in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015.

Section 1651 of that act requires the secretary of defense to report to Congress on the “steps being taken or planned to be taken” to respond to Russia’s INF Treaty violation, including “research, development, testing, or deployment” of future U.S. military capabilities “to deter or defend against the threat of intermediate-range nuclear force systems of Russia if Russia deploys such systems.”11

Section 1244 of the act requires a comprehensive report on Russian noncompliance with the INF Treaty, including a description of the president’s plan to resolve noncompliance issues, and requires prompt notification to Congress if the president determines Russia “has deployed or intends to deploy systems that violate the INF Treaty,” including “any plans to respond to such deployments.”

In November 2015, Congress approved the defense authorization act for fiscal year 2016, which contains a far-reaching provision responding to Russia’s continuing noncompliance with the INF Treaty. The more forward-leaning language in part reflects the increased influence of congressional Republicans, who gained control of the Senate in the November 2014 elections. (They have held the majority in the House of Representatives since 2010.)

Section 1243 of the act requires the defense secretary to submit to Congress a plan to develop “[c]ounterforce capabilities to prevent” attacks from intermediate-range missiles covered by the INF Treaty “whether or not such [counterforce] capabilities are in compliance with the INF Treaty”; “[c]ountervailing strike capabilities to enhance the forces of the United States or allies,” again “whether or not such capabilities are in compliance”; and “[a]ctive defenses” to defend against intermediate-range GLCM attacks.

Although these are the same three categories of potential military responses that McKeon described as being under review in his testimony at the December 2014 hearing, the Obama administration has not pursued a plan to develop these capabilities, let alone begun to develop them.

Section 1243 also directs the defense secretary, if Russia has not begun to return to compliance, to develop any of those specified capabilities if they are recommended by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with priority on those “capabilities that the Chairman determines could be fielded in two years.” (It is possible that the chairman would not make any such recommendation, in which case development would not be required.) Finally, the provision requires the administration to report to Congress on “potential deployment locations” of the military capabilities “in East Asia and Eastern Europe, including any basing agreements that may be required to facilitate such deployments.”

This provision of law pushes well beyond what the Obama administration is planning, even with its expanded response strategy. As the joint House hearings indicated, if there is no sign of progress on this issue when Congress prepares its legislation next year, it is likely that lawmakers will press for even stronger action. The provisions on the INF Treaty will inform the policies of the next president and could form the basis for additional future U.S. actions.

Russia’s Reaction

According to senior Obama administration officials, Russia’s reaction to the INF Treaty dispute has essentially been twofold. First, it has denied violating the treaty. As Gottemoeller said at the December 2015 hearing, Russia “claims that it is in full compliance with the treaty,” and it “asserts its commitment to continue, for the present time, to stay in the INF Treaty.”

Second, the Russian government has accused the United States of violating the INF Treaty with respect to three types of military systems: ballistic missile defense target missiles, armed unmanned aerial vehicles, and the Mk-41 launcher planned for the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Europe, which Russia claims is capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles. The INF Treaty prohibits such a capability.

At the December 2014 hearing, McKeon said, “All of Russia’s claims, past and present, are categorically unfounded. The United States has been and remains in compliance with all of its obligations under the INF Treaty. These Russian claims are meant to divert attention from its own violation. We fully addressed each of Russia’s concerns during the September 11[, 2014,] meetings in Moscow, and provided the Russian side with detailed explanations and Treaty-based explanations as to how U.S. actions are compliant with our obligations under the Treaty.”

At the same hearing, McKeon explained why these U.S. systems are in compliance with the treaty. The first two systems—missile defense target missiles and armed unmanned aerial vehicles—are clearly permitted by the terms and definitions of the INF Treaty. The one issue that is not so obvious is the Mk-41 Aegis Ashore launcher because it appears similar to the ship-based Mk-41 launcher, which can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles. If the Aegis Ashore launcher had the same capability as the ship-based version, it would be capable of launching intermediate-range Tomahawk cruise missiles from land, which is prohibited by the INF Treaty. According to McKeon, “The Aegis Ashore Vertical Launching System is not the same launcher as the sea-based Mk-41 Vertical Launching System, although it utilizes some of the same structural components as the sea-based system. Equally important, the Aegis Ashore system is only capable of launching defensive interceptor missiles, such as the [Standard Missile]-3. It is incapable of launching cruise missiles.”

Any Chance for Resolution?

The Aegis Ashore weapons system launches an SM-3 Block IB guided missile from the land-based Vertical Launching System during a U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Navy test from Kauai, Hawaii, on May 20, 2014. (Photo credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)So far, there has been no progress toward resolving any of the U.S. concerns about Russia’s noncompliance with the INF Treaty and, according to Gottemoeller, no sign of willingness by Russia to try.12 Under the current circumstances, with so many areas of disagreement between Russia and the United States, it is difficult to imagine a constructive way forward. Yet if this controversy is to be resolved, it is important to begin considering what a mutually agreeable resolution might look like.

To start, Russia would have to be willing to have discussions with the United States to acknowledge and address the U.S. concerns. To resolve those concerns, it would likely have to acknowledge in some way that it has taken actions inconsistent with treaty and must be willing to take the significant steps to convince the United States it has come back into compliance.

The INF Treaty created a Special Verification Commission as a forum to discuss and resolve implementation and compliance issues and to consider additional steps to improve the viability and effectiveness of the treaty, which it did successfully. Although the commission is now a multilateral body that includes the former Soviet states that are parties to the INF Treaty, it is the logical forum for Russia and the United States to confidentially discuss and resolve the U.S. compliance concerns.

It is not clear what specific steps would be necessary to resolve this case. In an earlier compliance case, the United States accused the Soviet Union of violating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty by building a noncompliant radar at Krasnoyarsk. As McKeon noted at the December 2015 hearing, resolution took some seven years. The Soviet Union eventually acknowledged that the radar was noncompliant and dismantled it. Because Russia has not acknowledged any action in violation of the INF Treaty, resolution would presumably take a different path.

Although it is not possible to “untest” the cruise missile system or eliminate the testing knowledge, it would be essential to preclude its deployment, which is a threshold issue, and meet the U.S. standard enunciated by McKeon, namely to “cease any further development, testing, production, and deployment of this noncompliant system and to eliminate the missiles and launchers in a verifiable manner.” Doing so would require significant transparency and confidence-building steps, including on-site inspections. That was the standard created under the INF Treaty and enshrined in the current New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Given Russian assertions that the Mk-41 Aegis Ashore launcher system would violate the treaty and Russia’s long-standing and often-stated anxiety about the Aegis Ashore missile defense system as a threat to Russian strategic deterrent capabilities, it is likely that Russia would seek some degree of transparency and confidence that the system cannot launch cruise missiles.

Although this idea may currently appear politically implausible to the United States and NATO, it is important to remember that the George W. Bush administration proposed to Russia a number of robust transparency measures on European missile defense to assure the Russians that it posed no threat to them. These steps included confidence- and security-building measures such as the presence of Russian military officials at NATO missile defense facilities and cooperation on joint missile defense centers. If it were a necessary step to help bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, NATO might agree to a transparency process by which the United States demonstrated that the Mk-41 Aegis Ashore system cannot launch cruise missiles and is compliant with the INF Treaty. Such a process might include provision of information about how the Aegis Ashore system differs from the ship-based launcher and tours of the facilities to demonstrate its compliance. An arrangement of this type would require the consent of Poland and Romania, the countries on whose territory the planned Aegis Ashore sites would be located.

In light of the seemingly intractable INF Treaty impasse, the obvious question is how Russia would react to such a resolution idea. The answer depends, at least in part, on whether it sees the INF Treaty as remaining in its continuing security interest, as it says it does, and if it perceives that the U.S. response would diminish its security. If so, then it should be willing to resolve U.S. concerns. If not, Russia may hope the United States will withdraw from the treaty, as the United States did from the ABM Treaty, or take some step that is explicitly inconsistent with the treaty, thus giving Russia an opportunity to free itself of INF Treaty constraints without admitting to a violation. Some Russian officials have raised doubts about the continuing value of the treaty, noting that it limits only Russia and the United States. They have suggested that the treaty should be made multilateral to place similar limits on other countries with intermediate-range missiles. Because those countries are not interested in giving up their missiles, this idea seemed intended to undermine the treaty.

For its part, the United States should pursue actions that will increase the likelihood of Russia returning to compliance with the treaty. In the first instance, that means that Washington should remain in strict compliance with its obligations to the INF Treaty. Additionally, the United States, including Congress, should not take actions that would effectively preclude the option of Russia coming back into compliance, including moving toward withdrawal from the treaty, as long as there is a possibility for resolution. Finally, the United States should continue pressing its case with Russia for resolution.

If Russia does not engage in serious discussions with the United States to resolve its INF Treaty concerns, the results could look like a replay of scenes from the Cold War. McKeon acknowledged this at the December 2014 hearing: “We do not want to find ourselves engaged in an escalatory action/reaction cycle as a result of Russia’s decision to possess INF Treaty-prohibited weapons. However, Russia’s lack of meaningful engagement on this issue, if it persists, will ultimately require the United States to take actions to protect its interests and security along with those of its allies and partners. Those actions will make Russia less secure.” At the same hearing, Gottemoeller said she had told her Russian counterparts, “[W]e do not want to go down the road of putting in place the kind of countermeasures that would…raise the kinds of threats that existed in Europe back at the time that [the] INF [Treaty] was first agreed.” After decades of Cold War nuclear confrontation and danger, the Soviet Union and the United States finally learned how to reverse the process and improve mutual stability and security. The INF Treaty was a central accomplishment in that effort.

It would be a historic failure if Russia and the United States forgot those lessons and could not preserve the security benefits of the INF Treaty. To avoid such an outcome, Russia should begin immediately to work constructively with the United States to resolve the U.S. concerns. Waiting will only make matters worse.


1.  This article assumes that Russia has taken the actions cited by the U.S. government in violation of Russia’s obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The U.S. government process for assessing and reporting noncompliance with arms control treaties is a comprehensive and exhaustive one, and determinations of violations are made only after a thorough review of the evidence provides high confidence in the assessment. As required by Section 403 of the Arms Control and Disarmament Act, the process involves the coordinated input of all relevant executive branch agencies and components. For the requirements for the annual compliance review and report, see http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=granuleid:USC-prelim-title22-section2593a&num=0&edition=prelim.

2.  U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” July 2014, p. 8, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/230108.pdf.

3.  U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” June 5, 2015, http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2015/243224.htm.

4.   INF Treaty, art. VII.

5.  “Rose Gottemoeller: We Don’t Want to See Action-Reaction Cycle Like We Saw During the Cold War,” Interfax, June 23, 2015, http://www.interfax.com/interview.asp?id=600960.

6.  Mike Eckel, “Impasse Over U.S.-Russia Nuclear Treaty Hardens As Washington Threatens ‘Countermeasures,’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 16, 2015, http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-nuclear-treaty-us-threatens-countermeasures/27250064.html.

7.  Anita Friedt, “A Full Spectrum Approach to Achieving the Peace and Security of a World Without Nuclear Weapons” (remarks at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Tiergarten Conference, Berlin, September 10, 2015), http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/2015/246943.htm.

8.  C-SPAN, “U.S.-Russia Arms Treaty,” December 1, 2015, http://www.c-span.org/video/?401252-1/hearing-russian-arms-control.

9.  Russian Arms Control Cheating and the Administration’s Responses: Joint Hearing Before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade and the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, 113th Cong. (2014).

10.  Brian P. McKeon, Statement Before the Joint Hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, December 1, 2015, p. 2, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA18/20151201/104226/HHRG-114-FA18-Wstate-McKeonB-20151201.pdf.

11.  Carl Levin and Howard “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, Pub. L. No. 113-291, 128 Stat. 3292 (2014), sec. 1244, 1651, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-113publ291/pdf/PLAW-113publ291.pdf.

12.  At the December 2015 hearing, Gottemoeller said that if the United States had “some inkling” that Russia were willing to acknowledge and try to resolve U.S. concerns, the United States would convene a meeting to do so. She and McKeon repeatedly said there is no such interest from Moscow.

Richard W. Fieldhouse is president of Insight Strategies, LLC, an independent consulting company. From 1996 to 2015, he served as a professional staff member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. He was on the personal staff of Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) from 1991 until 1996.

If Russia does nothing to address U.S. concerns about Moscow’s compliance with the [INF] Treaty, the current dispute over the treaty could lead to a dangerous action-reaction cycle. 

Russia Still Needs Arms Control

January/February 2016

By Heather Williams

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), accompanied by his adviser Sergey Ivanov (center) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, walks after delivering his annual state-of-the-nation address at the Kremlin on December 3, 2015. (Photo credit: Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images)These are dark days for strategic arms control. Events in Ukraine have brought U.S.-Russian relations to a post-Cold War low point, and Russia increasingly relies on its nuclear arsenal for signaling and prestige. Yet, if Russia hopes to achieve its aim of being a great power or at least being perceived and treated as one, arms control is a status symbol and cost savings mechanism that it cannot afford to waste.

Perhaps Leon Trotsky would direct one of his vitriolic outbursts at today’s supporters of arms control: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals! You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on – into the dustbin of history!”1 Russia appears to be on the verge of sending arms control to the dustbin of history given its reliance on nuclear weapons. After years of modernization and investment, there now appears to be little incentive for Russia to limit its arsenal.

Russia’s “nuclear sabre-rattling”2 certainly suggests it is no longer interested in engagement with the West. It insists further arms control is not possible unless any future agreement incorporates missile defense and long-range precision conventional weapons or is expanded to include other nuclear possessor states. In a June 21, 2015, interview with the Financial Times, Sergey Ivanov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, observed, “To be frank, there are practically no channels for interaction left” with the United States.3 Russia went so far as to threaten suspending verification of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in response to Western sanctions,4 and talks on a New START follow-on agreement and on missile defense collapsed in 2012.5

From the U.S. perspective, alleged Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty undermine trust between the two countries. From the Russian perspective, there is no political expediency to arms control at present. Moscow’s interests lie elsewhere, and any overtures at dialogue would undermine its desired impression of standing up to the West and promoting a more multipolar world. Arms control is dead and no longer a priority for Russia. At least, that is the dominant narrative.

There is an alternative story line, namely that Russia needs arms control more than the United States. Verification under New START expires in 2021, with a possible five-year extension. At that time, Russia will face the prospect of losing insight into the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the symbolic value of a treaty legally binding it to parity with the United States, and a venue for it to showcase its nuclear weapons and portray itself as a great power. This narrative is far less prominent, but leads to a more useful approach of examining the arms control landscape two, five, and 10 years from now. From this perspective, it is not only conceivable but actually quite likely that well before New START verification expires, Russia will be more open to further arms control.

Stutter Steps in Arms Control

Arms control has never been easy, but today, many claim it truly is on its last legs. In his classic 1961 treatise on the subject, international relations scholar Hedley Bull defined arms control as “restraint internationally exercised upon armaments policy, whether in respect of the level of armaments, their character, or deployment of use.”6 Above all, arms control is a management and confidence-building tool. It does not always seek to reduce the size of arsenals but rather to reduce risks by promoting transparency and dialogue about existing weapons.

Past instances of U.S.-Russian arms control were inspired by various factors that changed the strategic balance. In the case of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, technological developments in delivery vehicles and defensive measures, namely missile defense, brought Americans and Soviets to the negotiating table. Oversized arsenals and costly excesses in defense procurement were among the shifts that inspired the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). A change in bilateral relations and the geopolitical climate resulted in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. Other examples include the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which had intrusive inspections that laid the groundwork for the 1991 START, and the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which were at first unilateral steps taken by Washington and shortly thereafter reciprocated by Moscow with no formal verification measures.

The most recent example of U.S.-Russian arms control is New START, which requires Russia and the United States each to reduce their forces to 1,550 operationally deployed strategic weapons, 700 delivery vehicles, and 800 launchers by 2018. Yet, New START was a harbinger of challenges to come. Negotiations nearly broke down on numerous occasions over Russian insistence that meaningful limits on missile defense be included. The eventual compromise included vague language in the treaty’s preamble recognizing the interrelationship between strategic offense and defense. An additional challenge came from the U.S. Senate, where some Republicans expressed skepticism about arms control and its post-Cold War utility. In some cases, the skepticism appeared to be genuine, but in others, it appeared to be part of an attempt to make arms control a political football in the bitter partisan wars of 2010.

Russian behavior also suggests the beginnings of an arms control death spiral. First, Russian hardliners are questioning their country’s participation in New START, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).7 Second, defense was the only sector excluded from recent, across-the-board 10 percent cuts in the Russian federal budget. Finally, Russian nuclear saber-rattling, such as threats to deploy nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad and Crimea, demonstrates Russia’s continued reliance on nuclear weapons as part of a hybrid warfare strategy that draws on conventional and nonconventional capabilities.8 Within its hybrid strategy, nuclear weapons also serve a symbolic function. As Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution recently observed, “The Kremlin seeks to project the image of a Russian superpower; its oversized nuclear arsenal provides the sole basis for its claim to such status.”9

From the Russian perspective, any decline in arms control is primarily the fault of the United States. In a presentation at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the PIR Center, an independent Russian think tank, outlined and analyzed this perspective: missile defense remains the most sensitive issue in further bilateral strategic arms control, and the United States has consistently insisted that its plans for missile defense in Europe are directed at threats from the southeast, namely Iran, rather than at Russia. Despite the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, however, the United States has shown no inclination to roll back these plans. Missile defense is not the only factor jeopardizing strategic stability as the United States also continues to develop advanced conventional weapons. Russia is following suit in modernizing its nuclear and conventional arsenals but purely to catch up. Moreover, although Russia may be questioning its participation in some arms control agreements, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, has not ratified the CTBT, and remains opposed to the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat of Force Against Outer Space Objects.10

Russian reliance on nuclear weapons and current skepticism of arms control, by this logic, are based on decisions made in Washington rather than in Moscow. According to Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s senior arms control negotiator, “While the U.S. continues to strengthen its national security methods, which reduce the level of Russia’s national security, to speak of future nuclear disarmament is hardly possible.”11 So why does Russia need arms control?

The Need for Arms Control

Russia needs arms control over the long term to promote strategic stability, thereby decreasing its need for more weapons, and to reduce military investments. More importantly, Russia needs arms control in the short term to feed its great-power narrative, which is a crucial domestic political tool and a foundation of Putin’s leadership. As paradoxical as it may seem, reducing weapons has the potential to increase Russia’s credibility as an international leader and make it more secure in at least three ways.

Prestige. Putin’s great-power message relies on parity with other great powers and a sense of continuity from previous Russian and Soviet empires. This message is directed at domestic and international audiences. At the domestic level, according to a recent poll by the Levada Center, Putin’s greatest overall achievement was “strengthening Russia’s position in the international arena.”12 Putin’s narrative consists of re-establishing Russia’s sphere of influence in its region—for example, by reunifying Crimea with the Russian state—and overcoming the shame associated with the loss of the Soviet empire and the subsequent economic and military collapse of the 1990s.

Arms control, like the weapons it manages, is a status symbol for Russia. To be sure, for many Russians, arms control and the reduced size of the nuclear arsenal contribute to a sense of shame. Arguably, this shame in arms control is largely associated with the 1997 START II, which banned the use of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles and would eventually have limited each side to 3,000 to 3,500 operational deployed strategic weapons over the course of two phases. From the Russian perspective, the treaty took advantage of Moscow’s weakness following the collapse of the Soviet Union and was imbalanced in favor of the United States because Russia would have to “make significant financial expenditures” for destruction of its weapons and would actually have to build up its forces in order to reach the treaty’s limits.13 Nevertheless, neither distrust of U.S. intentions as a result of START II nor U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty prevented Russia from participating in arms control negotiations and agreements. Negotiations for New START, for example, began in 2009 with the Obama administration’s “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia.

Arms control continues to be closely linked to Russia’s great-power narrative. Equality as an international player is essential to Russian prestige, and arms control enshrines strategic parity with the United States, at least numerically in nuclear weapons.14 Putin also relies on a sense of history and continuity in portraying himself as the guardian of the Russian state as it has evolved through imperial and Soviet eras. For Putin, Russian history flows as a continuous thread rather than in fits and starts. Therefore, just as arms control was prominent at the height of the Soviet military era in securing parity with the United States—the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaty is a prime example—it can hold an important place in the revamped Russia of the 2010s.

Beyond bilateral strategic agreements with the United States, arms control has also been a source of prestige for Russia in managing Syrian chemical weapons and the recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the product of negotiations in which Russia joined with five other world powers to reach agreement with Iran on rolling back that country’s nuclear program. In these cases, Russia was expected to demonstrate preference for its allies in Syria and Iran. Yet, the final agreements proved Russia to be a credible and fair broker. These agreements showcased Russia as a diplomatic power, not just a military one.

Russia’s interest in arms control is enshrined in its national policy. A great deal has been written about the bellicose nature of Russia’s 2014 statement of its military doctrine, but an often overlooked component of the document commits Russia to “compliance with international treaties of the Russian Federation for the reduction and limitation of nuclear missile weapons.”15 Its 2013 “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation” goes even further in portraying Russia as an advocate for further arms control and nonproliferation efforts, whereby Russia will encourage “elaborating and concluding new agreements in [arms control] that meet its national interests and take into account each and every factor influencing strategic stability, building on the principles of equality and indivisibility of security.”16 Russian interest in arms control and nonproliferation is not purely a matter of prestige, but also contributes to strategic stability and the reduction of military risks.

Strategic stability. In a 1961 treatise, nuclear strategists Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin said the objective of arms control was to establish strategic stability.17 Arms control is intended to avoid arms races and establish a balance of military power between peers, adversaries, or both. This was the primary role of arms control during the Cold War, particularly with the SALT Interim Agreement when the Soviet Union and the United States attempted to slow the arms race and pursuit of superiority, reconciling themselves to parity. In Henry Kissinger’s famous 1974 rhetorical question, “What in God’s name is strategic superiority?”18

Strategic stability affords Russia breathing room to focus on domestic stability rather than becoming embroiled in a costly arms race. Strategic stability reduces uncertainty in dealing with peers, such as the United States and China.19 In a 2014 op-ed in The New York Times, Sergey Rogov, head of the prestigious Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies in Moscow, wrote, “If the Russian-American arms control collapses, it will be difficult to develop strategic stability in a polycentric world. The new unrestricted arms race will be multilateral and include not only nuclear but also conventional weapons.”20

Russia cannot afford an arms race at this time or in the foreseeable future. Its 2013 foreign policy concept document explicitly speaks to the contribution of arms control in establishing stability “through bilateral and multilateral cooperation,” particularly with regard to nuclear weapons, “for the purpose of ensuring common security in the spirit of strategic openness.”21 Arms control has the potential to place limits on U.S. capabilities, obviously in exchange for some concession on the part of Russia. At present, Russia’s primary bargaining chips are its warheads and delivery vehicles, tactical and strategic, which are reaching the end of their lifespans faster than they can be replaced. Arms control is Russia’s best hope for engaging the United States in a dialogue about missile defense and advanced conventional weapons. Whether or not this dialogue results in reductions or changes in U.S. posture will depend on context and what Russia has to offer, but it is the first step.

Military investment. Perhaps one of the strongest signals of waning Russian interest in arms control is its increased investment in nuclear forces, despite the resurgence of its conventional forces as demonstrated in Ukraine. Russia is projected to spend $88.3 billion on defense in 2015, with research and development as the main area of investment in order to continue boosting the share of modern weaponry across the services to reach 70 percent by 2020, with the bigger projects yet to come. Its 2016 national budget has been described as a “stagnation budget” of “militarism and inaction.” Defense remains one of the only sectors with increased spending, particularly in new technologies, and the government is waiting for oil and gas prices to rise again in order to make further investments in defense.22

This suggests a major commitment to improving conventional forces, but nuclear modernization has seemingly accelerated at the same time. Putin recently announced Russia would be introducing 30 new missiles to its arsenal of strategic delivery vehicles, and it recently deployed the new Borei-class submarine armed with the Bulava missile. Modernization elsewhere in the strategic forces includes updating cruise missiles23 and replacing the 59-year-old Tu-95 Bear bomber.24 In the 1990s, Russia claimed to rely on nuclear weapons while it rebuilt conventional forces. If Russia has now achieved a sufficiently strong conventional force, why is it more reliant on nuclear weapons than ever since the end of the Cold War?

There are three possible explanations for this continued reliance on nuclear forces, all of which suggest Russia will need arms control for financial reasons to lower defense costs in the coming years. First, Russia’s conventional forces remain weak. The swift and effective military operations carried out in Crimea were by Russia’s elite Southern Military District, the best equipped and trained of the Russian forces.25 They are not indicative of the overall Russian military, in which investment is largely going toward technology rather than training and people.26 Most of the newer capabilities and investments have yet to be introduced, so in real terms, Russia’s conventional military is not yet as tough as it seems and will continue to receive attention and investment while it is rebuilt. One risk is that Russia will pursue a conventional arms race, which may already have started, according to Russian nuclear expert Alexey Arbatov: Russian research on long-range, high-precision weapon systems is absorbing a disproportionate amount of defense spending.27

Second, improvements in nuclear delivery vehicles in particular have been in the works for decades and are only now becoming operational. Although Russia has increased the rate at which it introduces new missiles, it has slowed the pace of retirement so as to give the impression of a growing force. According to Eugene Miasnikov, director of the Russian Center for Arms Control, Energy, and Environmental Studies, the service life of Russian missiles have been “extended by factors of two to three,” and any further extensions are “impossible.”28 As a result, Russia’s arsenal is growing quantitatively but not necessarily qualitatively. In reality, much of this force may be inactive and slated for retirement. For example, early in the New START talks, Russia was amenable to deeper reductions on its delivery vehicles that were reaching the end of their service lives.

Third, military modernization is a domestic political issue. Military investment is particularly complicated because of its links to bureaucratic politics in Moscow, similar to the Cold War days of the Soviet Military-Industrial Commission. Many of Russia’s most powerful politicians and those advising Putin, the siloviki, have personal investments in the military-industrial complex. Any Russian defense investments should not immediately be viewed as posturing vis-à-vis the West or as symbolizing a more aggressive Russia, as they often are part of a domestic political narrative.29 This may present a challenge to further cuts, as is currently being demonstrated. On the other hand, Moscow is having debates similar to those in Washington and London as to whether investments in conventional forces are preferable to those in nuclear forces. With currency reserves running low, oil prices staying down, and defense spending demands on the rise, Russian investment in its nuclear forces is one obvious area for cuts. Rather than unilaterally reducing its arsenal, Russia can explore the possibility of reciprocation from the United States through an arms control agreement.

Preparing for Optimism

A man stands near a trainload of modified T-72 Russian tanks after their arrival in Gvardeyskoye railway station near the Crimean capital of Simferopol on March 31, 2014. (Photo credit: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)Russia may still need arms control, but one of the biggest remaining questions is whether Washington still has an appetite for it. To skeptics, nuclear arms control is a Cold War legacy and places undue limits on U.S. capabilities. Moreover, the skeptics argue, no verification system can guarantee compliance, as was most recently argued in congressional debates about the Iran nuclear deal. It is difficult to discern how much these objections are sincere and how much they are politically motivated, but Obama administration policy statements have affirmed that arms control is in the national interest. For example, in 2013 the administration declared, “The U.S. intent is to seek negotiated cuts with Russia so that we can continue to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.”30 From the U.S. perspective, arms control provides transparency into Russia’s arsenal and reduces excessive weapons and their associated costs on both sides, which in turn reduces nuclear risks.

Arms control is arguably more complicated for the United States than for Russia because of the United States’ role as a security provider to its allies in Europe and Asia. Further arms control with Russia will entail difficult discussions about missile defense and tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. For the United States, these discussions will have to incorporate the security concerns of U.S. allies in NATO, some of which are reluctant to see any change in the U.S. strategic posture in Europe given Russian aggression in Ukraine. What the United States wants to see in further arms control, therefore, is a reduction in the numbers of Russian tactical nuclear weapons and compliance with all existing agreements, along with a deeper reduction of strategic weapons and delivery vehicles.

Russia claims to want some combination of a reduction in U.S. missile defense in Europe, a reduction in conventional forces, and an expansion of the arms control process to include other nuclear possessors, such as China. From this perspective, Russian and U.S. demands of arms control are incompatible: any reduction in U.S. tactical nuclear weapons or missile defenses would be unacceptable to a large number of U.S. allies, and tactical nuclear weapons are Russia’s only bargaining chip to obtain the reductions that Moscow wants. Other nuclear possessor states have said they will not engage in multilateral arms control until Russian and U.S. arsenals come down further.

A Russian Tu-95 long-range bomber flies above the Kremlin on May 7, 2015, during a rehearsal for Russia’s annual May 9 Victory Day commemoration. (Photo credit: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)As discussed above, however, Russia’s goals are broader: great-power status, strategic stability on its borders, and cost savings. By the time New START verification expires in 2021 or 2026 (depending on whether or not the United States and Russia decide to extend the treaty), arms control may be a readily available option for pursuing these interests. Ultimately, whether in two, five, or 10 years, Russia may return to arms control.

There are at least three steps the United States can take now to lay the groundwork for these discussions. First, if it is willing to work toward resolution of Crimea’s status in parallel with, rather than prior to, arms control talks, one possible starting point is to set a goal of returning to 2012. That would mean returning to discussions about missile defense transparency measures and re-establishing NATO-Russian dialogue as they existed before the Ukraine crisis. That would be a nonbinding first step back to the negotiating table and would give attention to Russia’s primary issue of missile defense. At the same time, however, the United States would have to offer some means of reassurance to its allies that it is not indicating acceptance of Russian aggression. This could include continuing to deploy U.S. nuclear weapons in NATO member states, refusing to acknowledge Crimea as part of Russia, or increasing the size of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.

Second, despite the Ukraine crisis and claims of INF Treaty violations, New START continues to be implemented. Its Bilateral Consultative Commission continues to meet, most recently on October 20, 2015. The priority should remain on implementing New START and, as 2018 approaches, using the commission as a forum for exploring follow-on options and taking advantage of the five-year extension on verification.

Finally, the credibility of the INF Treaty must be restored. Russia and the United States can work toward that goal now so as to prevent it from poisoning the waters of a New START follow-on agreement when the time comes. Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty under Article XV31 would complicate further arms control talks by undermining trust and providing fodder, in different ways, to arms control skeptics in the Duma and Congress. Restoring full compliance with the INF Treaty must be a priority and can potentially be achieved by playing to Russia’s desired role as a leader in arms control and its stated policy commitment to “compliance with international treaties.”

U.S. policy states that arms control is in the country’s continued interest, but further opportunities for arms control successes may test the limits of what the United States is willing to compromise to achieve them. For example, if Russia and the United States did negotiate further arms control agreements, the United States would likely take measures to reassure its NATO allies that by no means is it accepting of Russian aggression. Yet, these means of reassurance, particularly an increased U.S. military presence in Europe, could backfire and cause Russia to question the U.S. commitment to any agreement. Moscow may perceive it as trading one form of strategic imbalance for another.

Arms control pessimists are not short on evidence these days, particularly when it comes to the INF Treaty. Nevertheless, there is cause for optimism that Russia and the United States can continue to make reciprocal reductions in their strategic arsenals while applying transparency and confidence-building measures. Russia, in particular, has an interest in further arms control as an element of the great-power narrative that continues to drive Putin’s policies at home and abroad. As the deadline for New START reductions approaches in 2018, followed by the expiration of verification in 2021, followed by the conclusion of a possible five-year extension of verification in 2026, there will be numerous opportunities to take further steps in strategic arms control. Indeed, before analysts relegate arms control to the dustbin of history, Russia might be the one to revive it.


1.  William Safire, “Dust Heaps of History,” The New York Times Magazine, October 16, 1983.

2.  Tom Parfitt and David Blair, “Vladimir Putin Accused of ‘Nuclear Sabre-Rattling’ as He Promises 40 New Russian Missiles,” Telegraph, June 16, 2015 (quoting Jens Stoltenberg).

3.  “Transcript: Interview With Sergei Ivanov,” Financial Times, June 21, 2015.

4.  Dániel Bartha and Anna Péczeli, “Nuclear Arms Control: Implications From the Crisis in Ukraine,” NATO Defense College Research Paper, No. 108 (February 2015).

5.  Steven Pifer, “Obama’s Faltering Nuclear Legacy: The 3 R’s,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2 (2015): 101-118.

6.  Hedley Bull, The Control of the Arms Race (London: Institute for Strategic Studies, 1961).

7.  Alexey Arbatov, Presentation at the 2014 EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference, Brussels, September 5, 2014, http://www.iiss.org/en/events/eu%20conference/sections/eu-conference-2014-4706/special-sessions-6020/special-session-10-7a22 (session on deterrence, nonproliferation, and disarmament) (hereinafter Arbatov presentation).

8.  See, for example, Samuel Charap, “The Ghost of Hybrid War,” Survival, Vol. 57, No. 6 (December 2015-January 2016): 51-58.

9.  Pifer, “Obama’s Faltering Nuclear Legacy,” p. 107.

10.  PIR Center, “From Words to Actions: Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament From 2010 to 2015 and Beyond” (presentation at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, New York, May 20, 2015), http://www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/13/14317274020.pdf.

11 .  Matthew Bodner, “Fight Over Ukraine Darkens Future of Russia-U.S. Nuclear Arms Control,” Moscow Times, April 7, 2015.

12.  Levada Center, “Vladimir Putin: Successes and Failures, His Strengths,” September 15, 2014, http://www.levada.ru/eng/vladimir-putin-successes-and-failures-his-strengths.

13.  Eugene Miasnikov, “Problems of START-2 Treaty Ratification for Russia. Is START-3 Possible?” INESAP Information Bulletin, No. 10 (August 1996), pp. 15-17.

14.  Matthew Moran and Heather Williams, “Keeping Up Appearances: National Narratives and Nuclear Policy in France and Russia,” Defence Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2013): 192-215.

15.  “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” No. Pr.-2976, December 25, 2014, http://www.rusemb.org.uk/press/2029.

16.  Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation,” February 12, 2013, http://archive.mid.ru//brp_4.nsf/0/76389FEC168189ED44257B2E0039B16D.

17.  Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961).

18.  Barry M. Blechman and Robert Powell, “What in the Name of God Is Strategic Superiority?” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 4 (Winter 1982-1983): 589-602.

19.  Andrei Kokoshin, “Ensuring Strategic Stability in the Past and Present: Theoretical and Applied Questions,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, June 2011, p. 5.

20.  Sergey Rogov, “Reinvent Arms Control for the Present Day,” The New York Times, November 15, 2014.

21.  Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation.”

22.  Andrey Movchan, “What Can We Learn From Russia’s 2016 Budget Proposal?” Carnegie Moscow Center, November 19, 2015, http://carnegie.ru/commentary/2015/11/19/what-can-we-learn-from-russia-s-2016-budget-proposal/im3h.

23.  Jeffrey Lewis, “Russian Cruise Missiles Revisited,” Arms Control Wonk, October 27, 2015,  http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/7816/russian-cruise-missiles-revisited.

24.  Paul Richard Huard, “Russia’s Blast From the Past: Beware the Tu-95 Bear Strategic Bomber,” The National Interest, August 22, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russias-blast-the-past-beware-the-tu-95-bear-strategic-13669.  

25.  International Institute for Strategic Studies, “The Military Balance 2015,” 2015, ch. 5.

26.  The Russian Air Force, in particular, remains a Soviet legacy with extremely poor performance. For example, in 2015 between June and mid-August, it had eight crashes as a result of technical failure or pilot error. Matthew Bodner, “Russia’s Military Is a Paper Tiger in the Baltic,” Institute of Modern Russia, August 26, 2015, http://imrussia.org/en/analysis/world/2389-russias-military-is-a-paper-tiger-in-the-baltic.

27.  Arbatov presentation.

28.  Eugene Miasnikov, “How to Approach Nuclear Modernization? A Russian Response,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 71, No. 3 (2015): 12-15.

29.  Heather Williams, “Two Russian Tales, Same Ending: Doubling Down on Defense,” Aspenia Online, May 25, 2015, https://www.aspeninstitute.it/aspenia-online/article/two-russian-tales-same-ending-doubling-down-defense.

30.  U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” June 12, 2013.

31.  The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is of unlimited duration, but section 2 of Article XV states that “[e]ach Party shall, in exercising its national sovereignty, have the right to withdraw from this Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests. It shall give notice of its decision to withdraw to the other Party six months prior to withdrawal from this Treaty. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events the notifying Party regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”

Heather Williams has been a MacArthur Postdoctoral Fellow since January 2015 in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where she received her Ph.D. in 2014. Her research focuses on U.S. and Russian nuclear policies, deterrence theory, and trust building in international relations. Previously, she was a research fellow at Chatham House and at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Prospects for U.S.-Russian arms control currently seem bleak. But if Russia hopes to achieve its aim of being a great power or at least being perceived...

Lowering Nuclear Risks: An Interview With Former Defense Secretary William Perry

January/February 2016

Interviewed by Daniel Horner and Kingston Reif

William Perry, shown in this March 2015 photo, was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997. (Photo credit: Glenn Fawcett/Defense Department)William Perry is the Michael and Barbara Berberian professor emeritus at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, having previously served as deputy secretary of defense and undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. He is the author of My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (2015).

Perry spoke by telephone with Arms Control Today on December 8, 2015.Much of the conversation focused on the current impasse in U.S.-Russian relations and the nuclear weapons programs in those two countries.

The interview was transcribed by Elizabeth Philipp. It has been edited for clarity.

ACT: In your book, you write that Russia’s ongoing and planned production of new nuclear delivery systems is likely to motivate Moscow to test new warheads for its new missiles and that you expect it to withdraw from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] soon and begin those tests. Can you elaborate on why you believe that to be the case?

Perry: First of all, let me say that I don’t have any inside information from anybody in the Russian government. That’s not what my point was. It’s just that I know they are developing new nuclear weapons. They’ve said so themselves. I’m confident that that will lead the weapons designers to request new tests. That will put [Russian President Vladimir] Putin up to a decision. He will have to decide whether to allow that or not. I don’t know what that political decision will be, but I do believe that the pressure to test will be strong. So it will come down to a political decision on Putin’s part. Will he accept their recommendations, or will he think the political costs are too high? One of the reasons the political costs will not be as high as they should be is because we have not yet ratified the CTBT. That makes a decision to test easier for him.

ACT: Given that, is there any feasible way to prevent the resumption of Russian testing?

Perry: The best thing we could do is to ratify the CTBT. That would make the political costs substantially higher for Putin. That might lead him to decide then not to test.

ACT: Following up on the issue of U.S. ratification, even if the United States were to ratify the CTBT tomorrow, entry into force could still be years away if not longer. What steps should the United States pursue in the near term to strengthen the global moratorium against nuclear testing, especially in light of your belief that Russia may be on a path to the resumption of testing?

Perry: I think it’s very important to get China to ratify. I do believe that our ratification will put very strong political pressure on them to ratify, and I believe that they would. If that happens, then I think we’ve got a pretty good case to go forward, pushing to bring the treaty into force even if, let’s say, North Korea does not ratify.

I think a good argument can be made that we should not let an outlier like that stop the whole treaty from coming into force, but that decision is still ahead of us. The first step is to get the U.S. to ratify, then put the pressure to China, and then I think we should go forward with a program to try to bring the treaty into force even if the outliers do not ratify. 

ACT: Shifting to another treaty, the United States has accused Russia of being in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty. Russia has denied the accusation and charged the United States with being in violation of the agreement. How do you evaluate the situation?

Perry: I don’t have enough data to make a judgment on whether or not Russia is in violation. That’s what our government has stated, and that’s all I have to go on. But I do not have an independent judgment of that.

ACT: Do you have any thoughts on how to get out of the impasse that the two countries seem to be in with regard to this violation alleged by the United States?

Perry: On that point, as well as other points of contention we have with Russia, what is badly needed is serious and meaningful dialogue with Russia, which we do not have today, at high levels. So I think it’s imperative for the United States to begin serious dialogue with Russia. It’s imperative for both countries to take the political step of high-level and serious dialogue. Even if there is disagreement, the dialogue is not only desirable, but necessary.

ACT: Okay, is there anything specific with regard to the INF Treaty, or is it all part of the larger picture?

Perry: No, it is a part of the larger picture. I think it is very desirable to keep that treaty in force. But the bigger problem is the bad relations between the United States and Russia, of which this is just a symptom, I think.

ACT: In a recent appearance in Washington, you said that any reasonable definition of deterrence would not require intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], the land-based leg of the U.S. triad. You argue that ICBMs are unnecessary and destabilizing because they are an attractive target and entail a greater risk of accidental launch than other nuclear weapons. How would you propose to phase out the ICBM leg of the triad?

Perry: I simply would not recapitalize it. If we decide to keep the ICBMs in the force, then in a number of years, not very many years, we have to begin to focus on building the replacements for the first ICBMs. So instead, I would simply let the present force phase out.

ACT: What would you say to the senators and representatives of those states in which U.S. Minuteman III ICBMs are based who say that the missiles and associated bases are an essential part of the U.S. deterrent and vital to the economies of their states?

Perry: I don’t believe it. They’re not an essential part of the deterrent. We have ample deterrence from the submarine force, and certainly if you add the bomber force to that, that’s an overwhelming deterrence force. So I cannot understand the argument that we also need ICBMs for deterrence. We might need ICBMs for other reasons, for geopolitical reasons, but not for deterrence. Any sane nation would be deterred by the incredible striking power of our submarine force.

ACT: You have said that a desire to maintain parity with the Soviet Union and later Russia has been and continues to be a main driver of the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and that this approach doesn’t make sense. Why do you believe that parity should no longer guide U.S. force requirements?

Perry: Because I don’t think it has anything to do with deterrence. I think deterrence has to do with our power and our ability to strike. The fact that we need to have, for example, ICBMs in the force, which is a kind of a parity, just doesn’t hold up. I don’t understand the argument that we need to have an equivalent number of weapons and equivalent type of weapons as Russia as an argument for deterrence. That is a political argument, and I understand the political argument. But that’s not an argument for deterrence.

ACT: Do you have in mind a rough number of [warheads], what a U.S. nuclear force should look like, should be composed of?

Perry: Certainly less than the numbers we have now. But I also understand the political argument that as we bring the numbers down, we ought to see if we can find some way of having the Russians come down at the same time, whether that be by a treaty or by some sort of a mutual understanding.

ACT: I want to go back to the larger point about U.S.-Russian relations that you raised before. As you were saying, the relations now are at a very low point. Is there anything that Russia and the United States and maybe other countries could do to improve the situation?

Perry: We have a number of points in common with Russia. So I would think our diplomacy would emphasize trying to strengthen cooperation in the areas in which we feel the need to cooperate, the desirability of cooperating. For example, we did cooperate on the Iranian agreement, and that was a big plus. We certainly have a need to cooperate in the field of terrorism and especially nuclear terrorism, and there are certainly trade areas where we could find a reason for cooperating as well, as we did in the Cold War. We should look at issues of mutual importance—certainly preventing nuclear catastrophe has to be highest on that list—and find a way of cooperating in those areas without having to agree with the Russians or having even political accords with Russians in other areas.

ACT: What would an agreement on nuclear terrorism look like that goes beyond what’s already currently agreed under the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism? What more would they be able to do?

Perry: One of the principal actions would be protecting fissile material on a global basis. The program that the president has initiated, the nuclear [security] summit [process], I think is an excellent example of what we can do along those lines. I certainly applaud the administration for their initiative on the nuclear summit and their continued pursuit of it. I think that all we can be sure of at this point is that there will be one more nuclear summit, the one in Washington next spring. So I would put the highest priority on getting major agreements at that summit meeting, and that could be facilitated by prior discussions with the Russians on what one can mutually hope to accomplish at that nuclear summit. Certainly it’s as much for the security benefit of Russia as it is for the United States to solve nuclear terrorism. So it should be a very powerful argument for working together to get major steps forward on the nuclear summit upcoming this spring.

It’s one thing just to go to the meeting and talk. It’s another thing to go to the meeting with a plan worked out with the Russians ahead of time on what the two of us might be able to accomplish to help get the fissile material controlled in other countries. So I think I would put that number one on the list of areas of cooperation with the Russians that can greatly reduce the danger to both of us of nuclear terrorism.

ACT: Do you believe that that’s realistically achievable in the here and now?

Perry: I certainly do. We have still a few months where we can be meeting and talking with the Russians. So we could have a solid program of accomplishment that we mutually agree on that we would like to see come out of that possibly last summit meeting.

ACT: Switching gears slightly, we understand that you have recently visited a number of U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia to discuss nuclear and other related security policy issues. In your conversations with officials, did they express any concerns about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and increasing Chinese assertiveness in its near abroad?

Perry: No, nobody raised that question with me. It seems clear to me that any informed and objective observer would see that our nuclear deterrent is quite powerful.

The nuclear deterrent, however, does not prevent the Russians from doing many things that are not directly nuclear related. I always have believed and I think events have demonstrated that nuclear deterrence is pretty well limited to deterring a nuclear attack, not deterring many other objectionable actions. During the Cold War, Russia took many actions that were very highly objectionable to us, and our nuclear deterrent did not stop them from taking those actions. Arguably, all that U.S. nuclear weapons have done is stop the Russians from carrying out a nuclear attack on us.

ACT: In any of your conversations, did any officials from allied nations take a position on whether the United States can further reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in its national strategy?

Perry: The only such issue I have come across, particularly with Japan, is the extent to which our nuclear deterrence is specific to Japan—that is, whether it involved nuclear weapons specifically designed to protect Japan as opposed to general deterrence. That has to do with maintaining shorter-range nuclear weapons. But there’s never been a question that I’m aware of as to whether our long-range nuclear weapons were capable of deterrence. This was an issue we had, as you may remember, back during the Cold War. Even though we had overwhelming capability in our strategic nuclear forces, the Germans felt it necessary to have nuclear forces based in their country to guarantee our deterrence to them, extended deterrence. That was, I think, a misguided judgment on the part of the Germans. But they certainly felt strongly, and as a consequence, we did keep medium-range nuclear weapons based in Germany to give them the confidence of our deterrence. I don’t see that lack of confidence today, though.

ACT: As you write in your book, progress on nuclear disarmament has slowed since the early days of President [Barack] Obama’s first term. How can multilateral disarmament move forward when the forums for multilateral diplomacy, such as the Conference on Disarmament [CD] and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] review conference, appear to be in a stalemate?

Perry: I think they are in a stalemate. I would not say that arms negotiations has slowed; I would say it has stopped. I don’t see any significant action between the U.S. and Russia today that has any chance of moving towards another treaty. I know that many people in the U.S. government that would like to do that and are trying to move in that direction. But they haven’t gotten any two-sided discussions that seem to have any significance going forward yet. I’d say this is not the fault of the U.S. officials; it’s just that Russia isn’t showing any interest in moving forward in nuclear arms agreements. So that’s one of the main issues ahead of us, and if we can get a stronger positive relation with Russia on other issues, we should also be working with them to try to get forward motion again on a follow-on to New START [the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty].

ACT: I was also asking about multilateral diplomacy, not just the bilateral U.S.-Russian interaction. Is there any way to stimulate movement in the CD, to deal with the issues that have divided the NPT members at their last review conference, issues like that? Who needs to take action to do that? Is there anyone besides the U.S. and Russia who can move that process or help move that process?

Perry: Probably yes, but I don’t have a good answer to your question.

ACT: In your book, you write that the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program over the past 15 years “is perhaps the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history.” What could the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have done differently to avoid this outcome?

Perry: Well, we had a negotiation going with the North Koreans in 2000, which was very close to an agreement. When the administration changed, the Bush administration simply cut off any discussions with the North Koreans. That was demonstrated to be not an effective way of dealing with the North Koreans, but it didn’t seem to me to be a wise way even before we saw the outcome. We should have kept the dialogue going, and that was a big mistake, I think.

ACT: With regard to the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea, how would you assess its strategy toward reducing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program?

Perry: It evidently has not been effective. But I would say, somewhat in their defense, that by the time they got into office, North Korea already had nuclear weapons. In 2001, North Korea did not yet have nuclear weapons. There was an opportunity for a much easier negotiation; it was much more feasible to negotiate with them not to develop nuclear weapons and not to produce nuclear weapons. Once they had nuclear weapons, the negotiation got very much harder. Now the administration had to argue with them to give up what they already have, and so I think the opportunity that was lost was between 2001 and 2008. That was when we had the chance to stop the North Korean nuclear program.

ACT: Given where we are now, what realistically in your view can be achieved at this point to stop and perhaps roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?

Perry: I don’t have any better advice on that than Sig Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, has given. He said that, given that they already have the nuclear weapons, making our position in the negotiations that they must give them up is a very hard negotiation. So he argues instead to put that aside for the time being and take a more limited goal in diplomacy. It’s what he calls the three noes, which is no new nuclear weapons, no more nuclear weapons, and no selling of nuclear weapons or technology.1 Those are the three noes that he states, and he offers some positive incentives we might give for that to happen. He said that should be the basis of the negotiation. If we ever succeed in that, then we can take the next step in trying to get them to roll back their arsenal. But as far as I can determine, we have not proceeded along the lines of those three noes. That was a tactical approach that Sig had that I supported at the time and still do. I think it was a reasonable approach to dealing with the North. 

ACT: I want to go back to the issue of nuclear terrorism, which we touched on briefly a few minutes ago. You wrote in your book that the threat of nuclear terrorism is the “gravest threat of our time.” Why do you think that’s the case?

Perry: The threat of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat of our time, and nuclear terrorism is the most likely form of it. If you consider the deterrent we have to somebody attacking us with nuclear weapons, it’s very powerful. But we have no deterrent to nuclear terrorism, and it’s relatively easy to imagine how such an attack could happen. So it’s not that it’s as catastrophic as a nuclear war; it’s just it has a much higher probability.

ACT: You mentioned the nuclear security summit process. How successful do you think that’s been in addressing this problem of nuclear terrorism?

Perry: I think it’s the most effective thing we can do because the most likely way for a terrorist to get a nuclear weapon is to get the fissile material and then build a crude, improvised bomb himself. So the biggest obstacle to a terrorist getting a nuclear weapon is getting the fissile material, and the nuclear summit process is specifically addressed to putting fissile material all over the world under much better control or eliminating it.

ACT: So as a result of the nuclear summit process, do you feel less troubled or less concerned than you did, say, seven years ago before the process started? 

Perry: Yes, I do. I mean, there are just fewer opportunities now for a terrorist group to get ahold of the fissile material. But I don’t feel by any means relaxed about this because there’s still a lot of it out there not under really good control. That’s why I think this final nuclear summit next year is so important. It gives us an opportunity to take even stronger actions than we’ve taken in the previous summits, including the opportunity for setting an international standard for the control and protection of fissile material.

ACT: What should be done to continue to focus high-level attention on the problem after the summit is completed? 

Perry: I’m sorry to say that the thing that would really give high-level attention to the problem is a nuclear terrorist incident. Then what had once seemed to be a theoretical possibility will become real. All I’m hoping and working for is that we can find the actions to stop nuclear terrorism without having that triggering event.

ACT: On the question of the likelihood, periodically people say within so-and-so many years there’s such-and-such a percentage chance of a nuclear terrorist incident taking place. People have been saying that for the last 30 years or so, and there hasn’t been one. So what do you think is the likelihood and over what time period?

Perry: I’ve never been able to put a number on it. But I would say it is quite feasible for it to happen in the next year, and I don’t see the actions we have now to keep that from happening as strong enough to give me any comfort that it’s not going to happen. It could happen next year; it could happen the following year. It’s a matter of the terrorist group putting the priority on doing that and putting the resources and the effort to making it happen. But I just don’t know how to put a number on it, a probability on it. Certainly, the likelihood of that happening is much higher than any of the other nuclear catastrophes.

ACT: As President Obama enters his final year in office, what more can he realistically seek to achieve with regard to the ambitious agenda he articulated in his Prague speech in April 2009?2

Perry: Number one, he could put a major effort into making this last nuclear summit a big success. That would be my number-one priority, I think, particularly since it addresses the threat I’m most concerned about, which is nuclear terrorism. Secondly, if he can get a renewed serious dialogue with the Russians, I would try to get a follow-on to New START under way. Third, a major push on the CTBT, however he could go about doing that, to try to get that ratified before he leaves office. That is a very steep uphill climb, and I don’t want to be optimistic. But as I recommend things to the administration, I do recommend that they make a major effort still to try to push that through, not to give up on the ratification of the CTBT. Many people will say that’s an impossible dream, but I would like a major push to achieve ratification.

ACT: Thank you very much for your time; we really appreciate it.


1.  See, for example, Siegfried S. Hecker, “North Korea Reactor Restart Sets Back Denuclearization,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 17, 2013, http://thebulletin.org/north-korea-reactor-restart-sets-back-denuclearization.

2.  Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

The former Pentagon chief says intercontinental ballistic missiles are not essential to the U.S. deterrent, worries about the risk of nuclear terrorism, and advocates a “major push” on the [CTBT].

IAEA Noncompliance Reporting and the Iran Case

January/February 2016

By Trevor Findlay

Mohamed ElBaradei (left foreground), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaks with Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abderrahmane Chalgam (right foreground) in Tripoli on February 24, 2004. (Photo credit: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)On July 14, 2015, after marathon negotiations in Vienna, Iran reached agreement with six world powers—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and the European Union on a deal to roll back and constrain Tehran’s nuclear program. The agreement handed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) its greatest noncompliance reporting challenge yet.

As the multilateral organization charged with determining compliance with nuclear safeguards agreements, the IAEA has had experience with eight significant noncompliance cases, including that of Iran prior to this latest agreement. None, however, matches the procedural complexity, technical intricacy, and political sensitivity of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Vienna agreement is formally known. To fulfill its role, the IAEA Secretariat and the agency’s director-general, Yukiya Amano, will need to draw on the IAEA’s extensive experience with past noncompliance cases, exploit the latest verification technology promised by the agreement, marshal its finest report-crafting expertise, and steer an impartial, balanced, sensitive path through treacherous political waters.

Reporting in Theory

In theory, the way that the IAEA determines noncompliance with nuclear safeguards agreements is clear, straightforward, and automatic. Article XII.C of the agency’s 1957 statute provides that safeguards inspectors “shall report any non-compliance” to the director-general, who “shall” in turn report such noncompliance to the 35-member Board of Governors, the agen­cy’s policymaking body. If the board determines that noncompliance has occurred, it “shall” report it to the agency’s membership at large (most readily through the annual General Conference), the UN General Assembly, and the UN Security Council.1 The word “shall” makes such steps legally binding. Action to bring a state back into compliance may be taken by the board, although its powers are limited, and by the Security Council, which has enforce­ment powers under the UN Charter. Beyond this, the details of the process, as in all multilateral arms control and disarmament regimes, are sparse. IAEA member states have not even sought to agree on a definition of noncompliance.2

Safeguards agreements themselves do not contain much more guidance than the statute and in some respects are inconsistent with it. Comprehensive safeguards agreements address noncompliance in just two para­graphs (18 and 19) and do not use the word “non-compliance.”3 Instead of the apparent automaticity of the statute, they give the agency flexibility in deciding what constitutes noncompliance, what actions should be taken by a state to redress it, and whether it should be reported to the Security Council.

Reporting in Practice

Eight safeguards noncompliance cases, beginning with Iraq in 1991, have resulted in special reports to the Board of Governors, the Security Council, or both. Five are considered by most observers to be serious and three less serious, although the agency itself does not categorize them this way in order to avoid implying that minor transgressions are not to be taken seriously. The agency’s noncompliance reporting has ranged from a single report that resolved the case to the board’s satisfaction (Romania, South Korea, and Egypt), to a limited number of reports (Libya and Syria), to voluminous and complicated series of reports lasting more than a decade on particularly egregious cases (Iraq, North Korea, and Iran).

Because the format, scope, and nature of reports and the process by which they are produced are not set out in the statute or elsewhere, the IAEA Secretariat has had to invent every aspect from scratch. As the first multilateral arms control verification organization and the one that still has the most-intrusive powers, the agency has had no precedents to emulate. At the outset, the only guidance it had was the traditional, generic way that the United Nations and, before it, the League of Nations reported to member states on a range of subjects. The diplomatic niceties, especially the respectful language used in addressing states; document format and numbering; and the formal, impartial tone of IAEA reports derive from these traditions. In all other respects, the IAEA Secretariat has been obliged to be innovative, flexible, and constantly aware of the significance of establishing precedents.

Each of the noncompliance cases that the IAEA has confronted has been unique, dynamic, and nonlinear. None has conformed to the straightforward trajectory envisaged in the statute or safeguards agreements. No longer is it just “inspectors” who discover and report noncompliance, but an entire safeguards department, employing inspectors, analysts, and other experts, that did not exist when the statute was negotiated.

The director-general’s role also has evolved far beyond simply reporting noncompliance to the board. He (all IAEA directors-general have been men) may, for instance, seek to resolve a noncompliance issue with the state concerned before it gets to the board. He may present an oral briefing to board members instead of or in addition to a written report. Directors-general are now intimately involved, for better or worse, in drafting and finalizing noncompliance reports. Technical briefings by IAEA personnel to the board are increasingly common.

The role of the board also has evolved. Contrary to what is envisaged in the statute, the board may or may not act in response to a noncompliance report by adopting a resolution or taking some other action. It may or may not report a case to the Security Council even when noncompliance has clearly occurred. In two cases, those of Romania and Libya, it has even taken to reporting to the council “for information purposes only,” presumably signaling that the council should take no action. The council took the hint and did not act.

When the council does act, the intensity of reporting by the agency usually increases as the council directs it to verify compliance with new undertakings imposed on noncompliant states. The scale of secretariat reporting also has increased markedly through the practice of ad hoc groups of states negotiating agreements that task the director-general with verifying compliance with additional undertakings. Such agreements, notably those imposed on or agreed with North Korea, Libya, and Iran, may involve the agency verifying and reporting on matters considered to be well beyond traditional safeguards, such as weaponization, dismantlement, disarmament, or a freeze in nuclear activity.

The secretariat’s reporting on noncompliance has thus increased in com­plexity, intensity, and technical sophistication over time. Long, drawn-out noncompliance sagas, such as those involving Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, were not envisaged by the statute, which is charmingly naive in its assumption that noncompliance will be speedily addressed. Certain cases have lasted so long that consolidated reports, summaries, timelines, maps, and diagrams have become commonplace. Complexity has also come from overlapping and linked noncompliance cases, also not envisaged in the statute. In 2004 the agency was dealing with five cases simultaneously (Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and South Korea). Currently, it has three (Iran, North Korea, and Syria). Revelations during the Libyan episode about the Abdul Qadeer Khan illicit nuclear export network soon linked several cases not just temporally but substantively.

Political controversy has attended the handling of every noncompliance case. This is inevi­table. Gover­nors representing member states, with all of their divergent interests and allegiances, make the ultimate judgment on noncompliance. Unless the evidence is overwhelming. which seldom is the case, the board is unlikely to rush to a decision. Because of the political implications, the board has a natural reluctance to report a fellow member state to the Security Council. Instead, the board is prone to ask for more verification and more reporting. Some governors may be unconvinced by the evidence and be reluctant, whether for political or substantive reasons, to declare a state in noncompliance. Some may wish to give the state a chance to explain itself or return quickly to compliance. Although the statute is silent on the matter, comprehensive safeguards agreements oblige the board to “afford” the state “every reasonable opportunity to furnish the Board of Governors with any necessary reassurance.” The board also may collectively wish to keep the case within its own control rather than hand it over to an unpredictable Security Council, especially one sub­ject to the veto of any of the five permanent members.

At least at the outset, the board’s inclination is to seek consensus in making a noncompliance judgment, invoking the famous “spirit of Vienna.” The board resorts to a vote only when it becomes clear that consensus is unachievable. Voting in favor of finding a state in noncompliance has steadily declined, providing evidence for the thesis that there is increasing politicization of the board due largely to the split between the Western group and the Non-Aligned Movement. Yet, this may not be the only factor. The increasing technical complexity of cases, the ambiguity of verification data, and the unprecedented solidarity among accused states, such as that between Iran and Syria, may also account for a reluctance by board members to vote yes or no and instead find refuge in abstention (fig. 1).

The Iran Precedents

In 2002, allegations that Iran was construct­ing undeclared nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak plunged the IAEA into a noncompliance saga that has consumed enormous amounts of the secretariat’s energy, time, and resources; generated political controversy about the IAEA’s noncompliance role; and set new precedents.

The Iran noncompliance case has been running for so long that it has resulted in more than 50 reports to the board and the Security Council, as well as innumerable oral reports, technical briefings, and bilateral and multilateral consultations. Although the reports are mostly cumu­lative, largely repeating what has been reported previously with the addition of an update, they are sometimes novel. The Iran case has set several new reporting precedents as a result of the multiple alleged violations involved, the waxing and waning of Iranian cooperation over the years, the involvement of outside parties in the case, and the sheer technical detail necessary for the agency to make its case. Novel areas of investigation, such as the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program—that is, its alleged past weaponization activities—have appeared.

The Iran reports paint a changing picture of the secretariat’s relationship with and attitudes toward Iran. At times, the secretariat demonstrates a willingness to give Iran the benefit of the doubt with respect to rel­atively minor issues that Tehran apparently clarified to the reasonable satisfaction of the agency. At other times, the secretariat draws a much harder line. An extreme example of the latter is its continuing concern about the alleged installation of a chamber for conducting hydrodynamic experiments with high explosives at the Parchin
mili­tary base.

Even more than the other cases, the Iran case has been complicated by diplomatic efforts by other parties to negotiate a resolution. These efforts, not necessarily in consultation with the IAEA, have mainly involved various permutations of the parties involved in the Vienna agreement but also at one time Brazil and Turkey. The Security Council itself, by imposing bans on Iranian activities relating to uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, obliged the IAEA to report on Iran’s compliance with such measures. Such reporting was pointless because Iran had indicated from the outset it would never accept such constraints. The Iran case also became entangled with other noncompliance cases, most notably those of Libya and Syria, and the A.Q. Khan connection.

One particular precedent that the Iran case has established concerns the use and nonuse of the term “non-compliance” by the secretariat in reporting alleged safeguards breaches to the board. In all previous cases, the director-general had used the term “non-compliance,” and the board had followed his lead in using it (table 1). In 2003, the George W. Bush administration began pressing the secretariat to use the term in order to trigger Iran’s “referral” to the Security Council, relying on the presumed automaticity the statute provides. Other countries, including France, Germany, and the UK, which were seeking to negotiate a settlement with Iran, preferred not to have it found in noncompliance at that time.

Faced with such divisions, Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei sought legal advice. After examining the statute, successive types of safe­guards agreements, and precedents set by the previous cases, the IAEA legal office concluded that he had discretion as to whether and when to report noncompliance to the board and whether to use the term “non-compliance.” Moreover, it was concluded that there was no difference between the terms “non-compliance,” “breach,” and “failure to comply.” In his report of November 10, 2003, ElBaradei thus spoke of Iran’s “breaches of its obligation to comply with the provisions of its Safeguards Agreement” and of “serious concerns.” The board used the same language in its resolution. Only in a subsequent resolution did the board use the word “non-compliance.” The secretariat has never done so with regard to Iran or in any subsequent noncompliance cases—those of Libya, South Korea, Egypt, and Syria.

Although this may sound like terminological hair-splitting, it illustrates the fine line that the IAEA Secretariat has to walk in noncompliance reporting. It has to provide strictly technical, factual reports using standard safeguards formulations, which are often unrevealing except to the cognoscenti, while signaling unambiguously that noncompliance has occurred. Furthermore, it has to perform this feat while taking into account the interests and concerns of interested member states.

The July 2015 Agreements

On July 14, 2015, a new phase of the Iran case began.4 The Vienna accord is a long, complex agreement that imposes new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program while offer­ing sanctions relief in return. This includes Iran’s implementation of the stricter verification requirements of an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement. Also on July 14, Amano and Ali Akbar Salehi, vice president of Iran and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, signed a “Road-map for the Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme.”5 On July 20, the UN Security Council, in Resolution 2231, endorsed the agreement and added its own requirements.6 The agency is now involved in even more voluminous and complex reporting on Iran, pursuant to even more legal and quasi-legal undertakings.

The first major test for the IAEA came in December 2015 when Amano was obliged to provide his “final assessment on the resolution of all past and present outstanding issues” to the board, specifically the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program that the agency had been investigating since 2002.7 His report, released on December 2, was like standard IAEA compliance reports in its use of routine formulations.8 It recorded that the agency had found no “evidence” or “indications” that Iran had undertaken proscribed activities after 2009, that it currently had an undeclared nuclear fuel cycle, or that it had diverted nuclear material from its belatedly declared program. The report also spoke of the agency’s inability to undertake the necessary verification with respect to alleged activities, notably at the Parchin military base. As expected, the report abjured the word “non-compliance” and did not mention breaches or even “serious concerns,” the term used in ElBaradei’s November 2003 report, even though it recorded that Iran had not cooperated to the extent necessary to resolve certain concerns. It also deemed implausible some of Iran’s claims about the nonmilitary nature of some of its dual-use technologies.

In other respects, however, the report was extraordinary. It was not geared toward assessing compliance with standard safeguards undertakings in a legally binding safeguards agreement but with a series of steps to be undertaken not just by the state concerned but by the IAEA itself, all of which were reported to have been accomplished on schedule. Most unusually, the report did not indicate that the IAEA would continue to carry out verification activities in pursuit of any of the unresolved issues. Normally, IAEA noncompliance reports signal that the director-general will remain “seized” of the issue and that monitoring and verification will continue.

On December 15, the board adopted a resolution that noted that the activities listed in the road map were indeed implemented on schedule, but it did not declare that all issues had been resolved. Although the resolution explicitly “closes the Board’s consideration” of the issue of the alleged past weaponization activities, a step that Iran had long demanded, it hardly let Iran off the hook as to its past activities. The board indicated that the IAEA will indeed continue to be seized of the Iran issue for the lifetime of the Vienna accord. The director-general was asked to report on a quarterly basis and at any time he has “reasonable grounds to believe there is an issue of concern.” The artful layering of the various elements of the Vienna deal ensures that if Iran wishes to obtain complete sanctions relief in less than eight years, the IAEA must reach the so-called broader conclusion that all of Iran’s nuclear material since the beginning of its nuclear activities decades ago has been declared and is under safeguards. Even for countries such as Australia and Canada, which offered full cooperation to the IAEA, reaching this determination took many years.

In the meantime, a complicated set of verification and reporting tasks awaits the agency with regard to the multiple new constraints imposed by the Vienna accord on Iran’s nuclear and related activities for the coming 10 to 15 years. Amano must submit a report, expected by some as early as January 2016, assessing whether Iran has completed all of the actions specified in the Implementa­tion Plan (Annex V of the Vienna agreement). These include removal and storage of most of its functioning centrifuges, conversion of the Arak reactor so it can no longer produce significant amounts of plutonium, and removal from Iran of most of its stockpile of enriched uranium. Implementation Day will be declared when the IAEA concludes that Iran has complied with the plan. Most sanctions will be terminated, waived, or suspended on that day.

This puts great responsibility on the shoulders of the IAEA Secretariat and director-general. They will be under pressure from Iran, China, Russia, and their supporters to give the green light for sanc­tions to be lifted, while the United States and its allies will be scrutinizing the agency’s verification activities and compliance reporting to ensure they are credible. In accordance with the precedent set earlier in the Iran case, the secretariat does not have to use the word “non-compliance” in order to convey that noncompliance has occurred, but it must do more than simply report data. It should provide analysis and assessment and indicate clearly where there is evidence of breaches and shortcomings.

The secretariat faces several challenges in performing this role. First, even with the best will in the world, Iran’s compliance is unlikely to be perfect. Distinguishing between technical and material breaches and between what is unintentional and deliberate is crucial. A second challenge is the sheer complexity of the Vienna agreement, the Security Council resolution, and associated elements of the deal, as well as the number of stakeholders involved. This is bound to produce interpretive differences. Notwithstanding the exquisite detail of the Vienna agreement, there is no such thing as an unambiguous undertaking in arms control, no matter how hard negotiators try.

A third difficulty arises from the well-known challenge of assessing and reporting on research and development, which Iran is permitted to pursue with respect to uranium enrichment.

A fourth challenge is how to make an overall assessment of Iran’s compliance at any one time. There are so many moving parts, technical subtleties, and potential compliance lacunae that the IAEA Secretariat will be hard pressed to provide the pithy summary assessments necessary to keep the process moving forward politically and to convince all interested parties of the validity of its assessments. These parties include IAEA member states without deep technical knowledge of verification and compliance matters; an often skeptical media; legislators in some countries, especially the United States; and nongovernmental experts. Finally, considerable uncertainty pertains to the precise relationship among the IAEA; the joint commission established by the Vienna agreement, comprising all the parties to that accord; and the Security Council in determining and acting on Iran’s compliance. The IAEA’s mandate and authorities must be respected in order to avoid harming its credibility in implementing nuclear safeguards globally, far beyond the specifics of the Iran case.

To boost the chances of the IAEA successfully carrying out its new responsibilities, the following ingredients are necessary:

  • As past cases have demonstrated, the director-general and the board need to be afforded flexibility in handling the complexities of noncompliance issues, no­tably in navigating the line between inadvertent, technical noncompliance and systematic, willful noncompliance. 
  • The IAEA needs as soon as possible to obtain the state-of-the-art verification technology promised in the Vienna accord, the additional personnel and funding that Amano has requested, and the best analytical and report-crafting skills it can muster. 
  • It is the responsibility of the board and the Security Council, not the secretariat, to declare Iran in noncompliance if necessary. The declaration should be based on evidence and analysis, not just raw data, prepared by the secretariat and presented by the director-general. 
  • Care must be taken to avoid the joint commission usurping the roles of the IAEA director-general and board.

Ultimately, Iran’s compliance will depend on whether it has made a strategic decision to comply. If it provides grudging cooperation, under­takes minimal compliance, constantly tests the boundaries of toleration, and seeks overall to game the system, no amount of finely crafted, technically competent, and politically astute reporting by the IAEA Secretariat and director-general will suffice to avoid a crisis. On the other hand, if Iran offers its full cooperation, there may still be uncertainties, minor disputes, or inadvertent noncompliance, but none of this will be insoluble. To ensure this outcome, Iran would be wise to work proactively with the IAEA Secretariat to facilitate the agency’s reporting and to provide as much transparency and access as possible in order to build confidence in its full compliance.


1.  Despite common usage, including at times by successive directors-general and members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, nowhere do the legal documents speak of “referring” a case to the board or UN Security Council. The correct term is “report.”

2.  The Safeguards Glossary—which the secretariat, not the board, created—defines “non-compliance” as “a violation by a State of a safeguards agreement with the IAEA.”  It provides several examples but no definitive list. See IAEA Safeguards Glossary (Vienna: IAEA, 2002), p. 13.

3.  IAEA, “The Structure and Content of Agreements Between the Agency and States Required in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/153 (corrected), June 1972.

4.  UN Security Council, S/RES/2231, July 20, 2015, annex A (“A Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Vienna, 14 July 2015”).

5.   IAEA Board of Governors, “Road-map for the Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” GOV/INF/2015/14, July 14, 2015.

6.  UN Security Council, S/RES/2231.

7.  IAEA Board of Governors, “Road-map for the Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” para. 8.

8.  IAEA Board of Governors, “Final Assessment on Past and Present Activities Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Programme,” GOV/2015/68, December 2, 2015.

Trevor Findlay is a principal fellow at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, and an associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Security at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of “Proliferation Alert! The IAEA and Non-Compliance Reporting,” on which this article is based.

To fulfill its role in implementing the Iran nuclear deal, the IAEA will need to draw on its extensive experience with past noncompliance cases, exploit the latest verification technology...

Getting to Know Cheryl Rofer

January/February 2016

Interviewed by Daniel Horner

Cheryl Rofer speaks about the Iran nuclear deal at Ripon College in Wisconsin on September 30, 2015. (Photo credit: Becky Bajt/RiponCollege)“Getting to Know” is an occasional series that introduces Arms Control Today readers to interesting people active in the world of arms control.

Cheryl Rofer, a chemist, retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2001 after a 35-year career in which she worked on projects dealing with environmental cleanup at Los Alamos and in Estonia and Kazakhstan, disassembly and decommissioning of nuclear weapons, and chemical weapons destruction, along with many other issues. Nowadays she spends a good part of her time writing for the blog Nuclear Diner, which she and two fellow Los Alamos alumnae, Molly Cernicek and Susan Voss, founded in 2011.

Rofer spoke to Arms Control Today from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The interview, conducted by Daniel Horner, has been edited for length and clarity.

When most people think of Los Alamos, they think of physicists, but you’re a chemist. Tell us about that role.

Los Alamos employs lots of different kinds of scientists—chemists, physicists, biologists. Physicists need chemists to make things happen.

Is that a motto among chemists, or do physicists agree with that, too?

Well, it’s the truth. [laughs] Back in the Manhattan Project, early on, the physicists thought, “Oh, we can do this pretty quickly.” Then they found out that they had to process the plutonium and uranium and that they had to deal with explosives, cast the explosives, formulate them. All that’s chemistry. The fact is, if you’re a good chemist and you’re doing anything real in that area, you learn some physics; if you’re a good physicist and you’re doing something real, you learn some chemistry.

How did you develop an interest in science and chemistry?

I just always loved science. I wanted to be a scientist after I gave up wanting to be a fireman. Sometime early on, I’m guessing I was seven, eight, nine, I got a book for Christmas called All About Atomic Energy. I also read every book on dinosaurs in the public library. So I have been a science nerd pretty much all my life.

A pretty broad range of people, from William Perry to Donald Trump, are saying that nuclear terrorism is the greatest global threat, or words to that effect. But you seem [from your writing on the Nuclear Diner blog] to be a bit more skeptical. Could you explain your skepticism, your views on that?

Nuclear terrorism is a high-consequence, low-probability event. And it’s really hard, particularly in a popular way, to talk about high-consequence, low-probability events. The question is, “How would the terrorists get a nuclear weapon?” That’s where the low probability comes in. There have been a number of articles that talk about a “market” in nuclear materials. Now in order to have a market, you need a seller and a buyer. And as far as I am aware, there are not any buyers out there. 

So the threat is somewhat overblown?

Yeah, if nobody wants the material—and in any case, if a terrorist group could get, say, sufficient enriched uranium to make a bomb, would they be able to make it? There are lots of things that can go wrong.

You’ve been writing a fair amount about the Iran nuclear deal.

I think it is a really good deal, and I’m glad that it was made. And I am very impressed with the people who negotiated it on both sides. I’m also pleased that [Energy Secretary] Ernie Moniz acknowledged the participation of the national lab people. I think that the [International Atomic Energy Agency] can do the verification, and I hope they get the money.

How would you characterize your general philosophy or frame of reference? Some of the opinions you’ve expressed aren’t always found together.

I think that’s an interesting facet of the way I’ve learned the field and the things I’ve done. The national laboratories are almost like universities for developing these ideas and policies. I think that my viewpoints are maybe more grounded in physically doing some of these things than some of the ideas that are out there in the think tanks where people may not have had the experience of figuring out how to contain plutonium in a can.

The former Los Alamos chemist explains why “[p]hysicists need chemists to make things happen” and how she came to her views on topics such as the Iran nuclear deal and nuclear terrorism.

Poland Backs Away From Nuclear Sharing

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

One day after a senior Polish defense official told a Polish TV station on Dec. 6 that the country was “actively working on” joining NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, the country’s defense ministry denied that Poland was “engaged in any work aimed at joining” the arrangements.

In its Dec. 7 statement, the ministry said that the comment by Deputy Defense Minister Tomasz Szatkowski “should be seen in the context of recent remarks made by serious Western think tanks, which point to deficits in NATO’s nuclear deterrent capability on its eastern flank.” The statement observed that some of these think tanks have recommended expanding the number of countries that base U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil.

NATO’s nuclear sharing program is currently believed to consist of the deployment of 200 tactical B61 gravity bombs on the territory of five NATO members: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Most of these countries also maintain aircraft to deliver the weapons.

Like all other NATO members except France, Poland already participates in the alliance’s nuclear decision-making as a member of the Nuclear Planning Group, which acts as NATO’s senior body on nuclear matters. In addition, Poland contributes non-nuclear capabilities such as aircraft in support of the alliance’s nuclear mission.

NATO officials have repeatedly stated that the alliance is not considering the basing of tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states.

But the alliance has raised concerns about the nuclear behavior and other aggressive actions of Russia over the last year and continues to evaluate whether to formally adjust its nuclear posture in response to these actions in the lead-up to the next NATO summit meeting, scheduled to take place July 8-9 in Warsaw. (See ACT, November 2015.)

In a Dec. 7 blog post, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said that as NATO diplomats weigh specific nuclear-related measures, the alliance already “is starting to adjust its nuclear posture in Europe in ways that seem similar (but far from identical) to the Cold War play book,” such as “increased reliance on U.S. nuclear forces” and “more exercises and rotational deployments of nuclear-capable forces.”

Szatkowski’s statement “is but the latest sign of that development,” he added.

One day after a senior Polish defense official told a Polish TV station on Dec. 6 that the country was “actively working on” joining NATO’s...

Cost Estimates Rise for UK Submarine

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

A new defense review by the UK government estimates the cost of building four new ballistic missile submarines to be 31 billion pounds (about $45.5 billion), an increase of 17-20 billion pounds over the last formal government estimate of 11-14 billion pounds nearly a decade ago.

The defense review also announced a new investment plan and deployment date for the new submarines.

The United Kingdom 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 2015 cost estimate to build the submarines includes the effects of inflation over the 20 years it will take to acquire the boats. The review said the total cost to design the new submarine fleet would be an additional 3.9 billion pounds, a portion of which has already been spent.

The review is also setting aside a “contingency” fund of 10 billion pounds, apparently to help address potential increases in the manufacturing cost of the submarines.

The review did not include an estimate of the cost to operate the new boats over their expected lifetimes. Reuters reported last October that the cost to build and operate the fleet and its supporting infrastructure will reach 167 billion pounds, citing figures provided to Crispin Blunt, a Conservative member of Parliament, by the Ministry of Defence.

In 2011 the government approved a five-year preparatory research and design phase for the new submarines. The key set of investment decisions on the program, known as Main Gate, had been scheduled for 2016, to be followed by a vote in Parliament. But the review said the government is “moving away from a traditional single ‘Main Gate’ approach, which is not appropriate for a program of this scale and complexity, to a staged investment programme.”

The review did not detail what this new approach will look like.

It also is unclear whether and, if so, when the Conservative Party, which strongly supports the replacement of the current submarines and currently holds a majority in Parliament, will seek a vote in Parliament in favor of the replacement program.

According to the review, the first new submarine is slated to enter service in the early 2030s. Previous government statements had said the first new submarine would be in the water in 2028. 

A new defense review by the UK government estimates the cost of building four new ballistic missile submarines to be 31 billion pounds (about $45.5 billion)...

Mine Ban Meeting Focuses on Victims

January/February 2016

By Jeff Abramson

More than 15 years after bringing the Mine Ban Treaty into force, states-parties to the accord met late last year in Geneva at a gathering that celebrated continued success while recognizing that the goal of a mine-free world has not been reached and highlighting the ongoing needs of victims.

At the Nov. 30-Dec. 4 meeting, the parties also reiterated their condemnation of any use of the indiscriminate weapons.

More than 90 of the 162 parties to the treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention, attended the meeting, where they welcomed statements from Finland that it had completed destroying its landmine stockpile and from Mozambique that it had finished clearing all known landmine contamination.

They also highlighted commitments to people affected by landmines with a high-level session on victim assistance on the first day of the gathering. Led by Princess Astrid of Belgium, a special envoy of the Mine Ban Treaty, the discussion included statements by survivors of mine accidents in Afghanistan, Colombia, Mozambique, Thailand, and Uganda who have become leading advocates of victim assistance. Throughout the week, many delegates reiterated the need for continued victim support and involvement implicit in a session-framing question that Astrid posed in her remarks. “[M]ore countries will follow the example of Mozambique and will become ‘mine free,’ but will they become ‘victim free’ as well?” she asked.

The treaty requires states able to do so to provide “assistance for the care and rehabilitation, including the social and economic reintegration, of mine victims,” a novel commitment for weapons-related treaties when it was opened for signature in 1997.

Also central to the treaty is its ban on so-called victim-activated landmines, which detonate due to “the presence, proximity or contact of a person.” Certain victim-activated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have been the cause of many recent casualties, especially in Afghanistan, are considered to fall under the treaty’s definition of antipersonnel landmines. The treaty does not ban landmines detonated by remote control.

Since the treaty entered into force in 1999, very few governments have used landmines banned by the agreement. Forces in Myanmar, North Korea, and Syria—all states not party to the accord—used the weapons between October 2014 and October 2015, according to the annual Landmine Monitor report. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a civil society coalition, released the report just prior to the meeting.

The report also found that nonstate actors had used landmines or IEDs that act as landmines during the same period in 10 countries: Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Yemen. The last time the Landmine Monitor found nonstate groups using landmines in at least 10 countries was in 2006.

Parties addressed new use of landmines in the meeting’s final report, where they “condemned the use of antipersonnel mines by any actor.”

Ten states that are not treaty parties attended the meeting, with Sri Lanka indicating it might be the next country to join the accord. The United States, another nonparty, reiterated its policies, first announced in 2014, that ban the use of landmines outside the Korean peninsula and set a goal of “ultimately” acceding to the treaty. (See ACT, October 2014.)

North Korea Claims Hydrogen Bomb Test

January/February 2016

By Elizabeth Philipp

Ko Yun-hwa (left) and Yun Won-tae, senior officials with the Korea Meteorological Administration, point to a screen in the organization’s offices in Seoul showing seismic waves originating from the area of North Korea’s nuclear test site on January 6. (Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)North Korea declared on Jan. 6 that it had successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb earlier that day, sparking a mix of condemnation and skepticism around the world. Government officials and independent experts agreed that the event was an underground nuclear test, but cast doubt on the claim it was a hydrogen bomb.

In response to the North Korean announcement, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Jan. 6 that the initial evidence of the test is “not consistent with North Korean claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test” but that the blast was “provocative and a flagrant violation” of a number of UN Security Council resolutions. The test has not “caused the United States government to change [its] assessment of North Korea’s technical and military capabilities,” Earnest said.

Classic hydrogen bombs are more technologically sophisticated devices and produce a higher explosive yield because they involve two stages: a first one involving nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, and a second one involving nuclear fusion, the combining of atoms. North Korea’s past three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013 were of fission devices. North Korea is prohibited from testing nuclear weapons under UN Security Council resolutions.

The Jan. 6 announcement, which was relayed by Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), described the test as a “spectacular success.” Pyongyang also indicated its intent to continue nuclear development, stating it “will steadily escalate its nuclear deterrence of justice both in quality and quantity.”

Punggye-ri Test Site

Seismic activity from the nuclear test was detected immediately by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the international body that is preparing for the implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and monitors the environment for nuclear testing.

North Korea, which is not a party to the CTBT, is the only state to test a nuclear weapon in this century.

The CTBTO reported an “unusual seismic event” near North Korea’s known nuclear testing site via a statement on its website Jan. 6. The seismic data confirm that it was “indeed a manmade explosion,” said Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the CTBTO, at a Jan. 7 press briefing.

Although North Korea did not announce an imminent test, experts have been aware of preparations for months, tracking activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site. In a Dec. 2 analysis on 38 North, an online publication of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote that Pyongyang is “excavating a new tunnel for nuclear testing.” Speaking on the implications of that activity at a Dec. 16 press briefing by 38 North, Joel Wit of the U.S.-Korea Institute said digging a tunnel is “serious” and that North Korea “may want more tunnels for the future to conduct more tests.” In a Jan. 7 analysis of satellite imagery published by 38 North, Joseph Bermudez, chief analytics officer for AllSource Analysis, said the test almost certainly was conducted at an older tunnel that was used for the 2009 and 2013 tests. North Korea had been excavating this tunnel for more than a year, he wrote.

Nuclear Yield

Experts can estimate the yield of a nuclear explosion based on seismic data. Through its International Monitoring System, the CTBTO detected the test at more than two dozen detection stations around the world, Zerbo said at a Jan. 6 press briefing. The explosion was found to be similar to the 2013 test in size and location, he said.

The CTBTO analysis found the magnitude of the explosion to be 4.85, just slightly smaller than the 2013 test, which had a magnitude of 5.1, according to Zerbo. The recent event is “on the order of 10 kilotons,” said Lewis at a Jan. 7 briefing by 38 North. But that is just an estimate, given that the North Korean site is not calibrated, he said. A calibrated site would allow for a standardized and reliable seismic reading.

Zerbo said the CTBTO would monitor its radionuclide detectors, which collect gases released into the air by the nuclear explosion. The presence of certain elements, such as xenon, can confirm that the seismic event was caused by a nuclear explosion. It can take time for the gases released by the explosion to reach the surface. In 2013, it took 55 days for the CTBTO’s radionuclide detectors to pick up evidence from the February test. The 2009 nuclear test yielded no radionuclide evidence.

Test Type

The evidence indicates that the magnitude of the test was significantly less powerful than past tests of hydrogen bombs by other states, said a South Korean military official quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

Randy Bell, director of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s International Data Centre speaks at a press briefing in Vienna on January 6. (Photo credit: CTBTO)Rather than a classic two-stage hydrogen bomb design, it is more likely that North Korea tested a “boosted fission device,” Lewis said at the Jan. 7 briefing by 38 North. A boosted device uses hydrogen isotopes to increase the explosive yield by making the fission reaction more efficient.

That may be what North Korea means when it refers to a “hydrogen bomb,” he suggested. The detonation of a boosted fission device thus would be consistent with North Korea’s hydrogen bomb claim and with the observed yield, he said. A boosted device would be a “reasonable” step for North Korea in its fourth nuclear test, he said.

The increased efficiency means that North Korea would require less fissile material for each weapon and therefore represents an “important and useful step” in developing warheads for its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, Lewis said.

North Korea deploys a variety of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. It has displayed an ICBM, the KN-08, but not tested it. Pyongyang is also developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which it most recently tested in December (see page 38).

A second important implication of the test is that a boosted device “makes an excellent first stage” of a two-stage hydrogen bomb, Lewis said.

International Responses

At a Jan. 6 press conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “condemn[ed the test] unequivocally” and announced that the UN Security Council would immediately begin work on a new resolution against North Korea.

The Security Council held an emergency meeting on Jan. 6 to discuss responsive measures. The United States expressed its support for new multilateral sanctions in a Jan. 6 press statement by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The effectiveness of additional sanctions depends on China, Joseph DeThomas, former deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said at the Jan. 7 press conference by 38 North. Experts have criticized Beijing, which is North Korea’s primary trading partner, for being too lenient on Pyongyang.

“Sanctions alone will not leverage change in the North Korean policy in the absence of a fundamental change in the Chinese policy,” DeThomas said. The additional sanctions should eventually be coupled with a diplomatic and political track that provides North Korea a pathway to negotiated denuclearization, he said.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (center) speaks as Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se (second from right) listens during an emergency meeting of the National Security Council at the presidential Blue House on January 6. (Photo credit: South Korean Presidential Blue House/Getty Images)On Jan. 6, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a statement, saying the Chinese government is “firmly opposed” to North Korean nuclear testing and called on Pyongyang to “honor its commitment to denuclearization.”

In a Jan. 6 statement, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called for the United States and other allies of Seoul to impose sanctions on North Korea, saying her country would work with the international community to ensure North Korea “pay[s] the price” for the “grave provocation.”

Members of the U.S. Congress from both political parties called for a variety of actions, particularly a strengthening of sanctions. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said on Jan. 6 that “new and more biting” sanctions on North Korea are necessary. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) called for the “toughest and broadest possible sanctions against North Korea” and any entities that support Pyongyang’s illicit activities.

In separate Jan. 7 statements, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for expanding missile defense systems to counter the threat posed by North Korean missiles. 

North Korea declared it had successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb, sparking a mix of condemnation and skepticism around the world.

North Korea Tests Sea-Based Missiles

January/February 2016

By Elizabeth Philipp

North Korea conducted two tests of a sea-based missile late last year, apparently with mixed results.

The most recent ejection test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), on Dec. 21, was successful, according to analysts. In an analysis of satellite imagery for 38 North, an online publication of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Joseph Bermudez said reports of the Dec. 21 test at the Sinpo Shipyard were supported by imagery of the site.

Ejection tests are designed to evaluate the missile’s stabilization systems and the process of underwater launch. North Korea first conducted a successful ejection test from a submerged barge last May. (See ACT, June 2015).

The Dec. 21 ejection test came less than a month after a failed Nov. 28 launch test from North Korea’s experimental SINPO-class submarine. Despite the failure of the launch test, some experts suggested it may be a more focused research and development effort by Pyongyang to hone and eventually deploy a sea-based nuclear-armed missile. The subsequent ejection test in December appears to substantiate this suggestion.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency first reported on the Nov. 28 launch that day, citing a South Korean official who described the test as unsuccessful because the missile “failed to soar from the waters.” Additionally, “no missile flight was tracked on radar” nor was missile debris “observed floating on the surface of the water following the test,” according to Bermudez, who is chief analytics officer for AllSource Analysis.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp., told Arms Control Today in a Dec. 17 email that the development of new technologies is sometimes a process of “two steps forward, one step back,” in which “something that worked in an earlier test fails in a later test.” Testing the SLBM would help North Korea “identify flaws that need fixing,” he said.

Missile components are increasingly difficult for Pyongyang to procure due to UN Security Council resolutions, Bennett said. Resolutions have included demands for North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons program, including ballistic missile development.

The SLBM tests coincided with the run-up to North Korea’s Jan. 6 test of a nuclear device (see page 36). Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency on Dec. 10 reported North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s announcement that his country was “ready to detonate self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb.” The assertion of a hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb, design is new for North Korea.

North Korea said the Jan. 6 test involved a hydrogen bomb, but experts are skeptical of the true test type. North Korea is believed to be able to deliver a nuclear weapon via its medium-range Nodong missile. (See ACT, June 2014). 

North Korea conducted two tests of a sea-based missile late last year, apparently with mixed results. 


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