"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
March 2016
Edition Date: 
Thursday, March 3, 2016
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States Meet to Enhance WMD Initiative

March 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

Members of seven countries participate in an exercise known as Adriatic Shield as part of the Proliferation Security Initiative in the waters near the Croatian port city of Rijeka on May 13, 2008. (Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)Representatives from 71 countries met in Washington in January to discuss plans for strengthening an initiative designed to disrupt shipments of materials and technologies used for developing nonconventional weapons.

At a Jan. 28 press briefing, Thomas Countryman, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that participants at the previous day’s midlevel political meeting of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) discussed topics such as trends in proliferation, tactics that networks use to ship sensitive materials and technologies, and options to control proliferation financing. Countryman also said that countries shared expertise and resources that should contribute to building countries’ ability to carry out interdictions.

Launched by the George W. Bush administration in May 2003, the PSI is an informal, voluntary arrangement without a permanent institutional structure. It seeks to enhance participants’ capacity to interdict illegal trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), related materials and technologies, and WMD delivery systems through international cooperation.

The January meeting marked the midpoint between the last high-level political meeting, in Poland in 2013, and the next, scheduled to take place in France in 2018. The United States committed to hosting the midlevel meeting at the 2013 meeting in Poland, which also celebrated the initiative’s 10th anniversary.

The initiative does not create new international law. Instead, it relies on existing legal instruments and national authorities to allow states to conduct interdictions and share information about illicit trafficking of dual-use technologies.

Currently, 105 countries participate in the initiative. To join, a country must endorse the statement of principles, which aims to “establish a more coordinated and effective basis through which to impede and stop shipments of WMD, delivery systems, and related materials flowing to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern.”

The PSI does not typically publish cases of successful disruption of WMD-related trafficking. However, in May 2008, the U.S. State Department released a description of five PSI efforts. These interdictions included stopping shipments of materials for Iran’s nuclear program and of ballistic missile components heading to Syria. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

The chairman’s summary of the Jan. 27 meeting said that, over the next two years, participating states will work harder to “improve their individual and collective interdiction capabilities through regional and global activities, exercises, workshops, actual interdictions as they occur, and continuous reassessments of the proliferation environment.”

A European official who is involved with the PSI said in a Feb. 4 interview that greater emphasis on regional exercises is important because proliferation threats can vary from region to region, as do “needs to strengthen capacities and strategies to combat proliferation networks.”

Speaking at the Jan. 28 briefing, Wendin Smith, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, emphasized that the initiative has created a “flexible network” that “continues to evolve” to meet proliferation threats.

But the European official said the PSI does not have a strategy to expand its membership and that “not enough is being done to recruit key countries to join the initiative.”

The official said the PSI would benefit from Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani participation. Those countries, which possess WMD-related technologies and materials, could take steps to strengthen their national capacities to impede shipments of dual-use materials and technologies, he said.

At the press briefing, Countryman said the United States would welcome new participants such as China, India, and Indonesia to endorse the initiative’s principles and participate in exercises and workshops.

Countryman said participation of these countries in the initiative would “enhance the efficiency” of UN Security Council sanctions.

Most planning for the initiative takes place during meetings of the PSI Operational Experts Group, which comprises 21 states, primarily from Europe and North America. That group is to meet in the United Kingdom in April.

More than 70 countries convened to update informal, joint interdiction actions. 

U.S. Remains Top Arms Provider

March 2016

By Jeff Abramson

A U.S. Navy seaman signals to the pilot of an Army AH-64 Apache helicopter during an exercise in the Persian Gulf on September 28, 2015. (Photo credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class Bradley J. Gee/U.S. Navy)The United States remains the world’s largest supplier of major conventional weapons systems, increasing the value of arms agreements it has concluded in the past years, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Russia maintains its position as the second-largest arms merchant, with China and four European countries also among top suppliers to an arms market primarily comprised of developing countries, the report says.

The United States concluded $36.2 billion in arms transfer agreements worldwide in 2014, the most recent year detailed in the report. That total was up nearly $10 billion from the 2013 total and constituted just more than half of all global 2014 agreements, which were valued at $71.8 billion, slighly above the 2013 total of $70.2 billion. Nearly $30 billion of U.S. agreements in 2014 were with developing countries, including large-value pacts with Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.

Three of those four countries are in what CRS report author Catherine Theohary terms the Near East, a region that accounted for more than 60 percent of all developing-country agreements from 2011 to 2014. Led by Saudi Arabia, the developing world’s top arms purchaser, the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have received advanced air, naval, and missile defense systems and historically have been driven by “concerns over the growing strategic threat from Iran,” according to Theohary. In 2014, agreements were reached to supply anti-tank missiles, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles, Javelin missiles, AH-64D Apache helicopters, and other weapons to GCC countries.

Scrutiny of Arms for the Middle East

In the time period beyond the one covered in the report, the Iran nuclear agreement was concluded, and oil prices slid significantly. Those developments, however, have not stopped arms transfer agreements to the Middle East, which is increasingly racked by conflict. In 2015 and 2016, the Obama administration has notified Congress of a number of potential major arms transfers to GCC countries. Those to Saudi Arabia, by the United States and others, are drawing particular scrutiny in light of reported use against civilians and other abuses by the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.

In reviewing a November 2015 notification of a potential $1.3 billion sale of advanced air-to-ground weapons to Riyadh, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invoked a new authority that requires the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the delivery of an arms shipment.

Such pre-delivery notifications, which were written into the Arms Export Control Act in December 2014 with the Middle East in mind, have not been invoked previously. They require a joint request of the chair and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congress can pass legislation to block or amend arms agreements up until delivery but, in the absence of a delivery notification, typically has restricted its review to the agreement stage.

More recently, a Feb. 14 Human Rights Watch report said that Saudi-led coalition forces have used advanced, U.S.-provided sensor-fuzed cluster munitions in civilian areas in Yemen, contrary to U.S. restrictions. Also, the European Parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution on Feb. 25 finding that arms transfers to Saudi Arabia violate EU rules and initiating work toward an arms embargo on the country. An official embargo would be established by a separate European mechanism, making the timing and prospects of such a move uncertain.

A report last month with arms transfer information updated through 2015 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) commented that the intervention in Yemen was facilitated by “high levels of arms imports,” with Saudi Arabia’s imports increasing by 275 percent for the period 2011-2015 as compared to the previous five years. Even with concerns over Saudi attacks in Yemen, the report authors said it is expected that Saudi Arabia would “continue to receive large numbers of major arms,” including 150 combat aircraft and thousands of missiles from the United States.

Other Suppliers and Purchasers

In 2014, Russia concluded $10.2 billion in global arms agreements, down slightly from $10.3 billion in 2013 but remaining the world’s second-largest arms supplier in part due to “creative financing,” such as offset agreements and a “willingness to agree to licensed production…particularly [with] India and China,” Theohary writes. While saying that Russia has overcome “significant industrial production problems,” she concludes what earlier report authors have, that a lack of substantial research and development “has hampered Russia’s longer-term foreign arms sales prospects.”

Still, Russia remains a primary supplier to India, the developing world’s second-largest arms purchaser over the report’s eight-year period (2007-2014). Increased competition for India’s arms purchases, as evidenced by the selection of France to supply next-generation combat fighter aircraft, indicates that Russia cannot rely on India as an arms purchaser for the long term, the CRS report says.

Led by India, the Asian region itself is the second-largest developing-world arms market, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the developing world’s arms agreements from 2011 to 2014 ($72.4 billion). In recent years, the United States has replaced Russia as the top arms supplier to the region, concluding, for example, more than $7 billion in arms agreements with South Korea in 2014 alone.

China, although listed as a developing country, is also one of the world’s top suppliers, accounting for $13 billion in agreements with other developing countries from 2011 to 2014, which is fifth overall. Primarily seen as a seller of small arms and light weapons, especially to Africa, China is increasingly marketing advanced aircraft.

European countries, in particular France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, also remain important arms suppliers but with significant annual fluctuations in agreements. Those four countries accounted for just under 10 percent of agreements with developing states in 2014, down from more than 25 percent in 2013, according to Theohary. The recent SIPRI report adds Spain to the list of top European exporters and notes that the five countries together accounted for 21 percent of all arms transfers between 2011 and 2015. SIPRI’s report focused primarily on actual transfers, whereas the CRS report has sections on agreements and deliveries. 

A report on weapons sales shows Middle East states are major purchasers.

Iran Nuclear Deal Implemented

March 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left); Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (center); and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini arrive for a press conference at IAEA headquarters in Vienna on January 16 to announce that the agency had verified that Iran had met its obligations under a July agreement to curb its nuclear activities. (Photo credit: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)Iran and six world powers in January passed a critical point in the implementation of the nuclear deal they reached last July as the international agency in charge of ensuring that nuclear programs are exclusively peaceful verified that Tehran had met its obligations under the deal to curb its nuclear activities.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced on Jan. 16 in Vienna that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had issued a report verifying that Iran had taken the necessary steps. Under the timetable laid out in the deal, that announcement triggered an easing of the web of sanctions that had been imposed on Iran for its nuclear activities.

Mogherini led the six countries known collectively as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that negotiated with Iran.

The IAEA report noted that Iran had taken steps required under the deal, such as reducing the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to 5,060, shipping out its enriched uranium in excess of 300 kilograms, removing the core of its incomplete heavy-water reactor at Arak, and allowing the agency to enhance its monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

On Implementation Day, as it is called, nuclear-related sanctions on Iran imposed by the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States were lifted or waived. Past UN Security Council resolutions on Iran were also terminated and replaced by UN Security Council Resolution 2231. The resolution, which the council unanimously approved on July 20, endorsed the July 14 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In the Jan. 16 statement, Zarif and Mogherini said that “all sides remain firmly convinced that this historic deal is both strong and fair, and that it meets the requirements of all; its proper implementation will be a key contribution to improved regional and international peace, stability and security.”

In a Jan. 17 speech, U.S. President Barack Obama said that, under the deal, “Iran will not get its hands on a nuclear bomb. The region, the United States, and the world will be more secure.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a Jan. 17 statement that, with the arrival of Implementation Day, “Iran’s nuclear rights have been accepted by all and the Iranian economy became a global one.”

In testimony on Feb. 9 to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that, as a result of the enhanced monitoring and verification, the international community “is well postured to quickly detect changes to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities” and that the deal provides the IAEA with tools to “investigate possible breaches of prohibitions” in the agreement.

Iran and the P5+1 will continue to work on a number of additional provisions required under the deal. One of these measures is modifying the heavy-water reactor at Arak and fitting it with a new core.

The redesigned reactor will still produce medical isotopes but far less weapons-grade plutonium than it would have under its original design.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said on Jan. 26 that Iran and China had signed a basic agreement to formalize China’s assistance in redesigning the Arak reactor during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran the previous week. 

IAEA Funding

In the United States, members of Congress expressed support for funding IAEA efforts under the Iran deal. In a Feb. 8 letter to Obama, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and 34 other members of the House of Representatives called for “robust funding” for the IAEA in the fiscal year 2017 budget. The letter said that providing the agency with the necessary funding to fulfill its responsibilities puts Washington “one step closer to achieving our ambitious goals for global non-proliferation.”

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano estimated in August that implementation of the IAEA’s obligations under the Iran deal would cost an additional 9.2 million euros (about $10.1 million).

Amano said that the additional costs for fiscal year 2016 would need to be met by extrabudgetary contributions but that for 2017 and beyond, they would be built into the IAEA budget.

The U.S. contribution to the IAEA comes primarily from the budget of the State Department.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 9. Clapper said that under the nuclear deal, the international community “is well postured to quickly detect changes to Iran’s declared nuclear facilities.” (Photo credit: Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, which was released Feb. 9, includes an assessed contribution of $101 million and a voluntary contribution of $89.8 million to support a number of IAEA programs, including nuclear safeguards and verification activities. The voluntary contribution request is a $2 million increase over the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

A State Department official told Arms Control Today in a Feb. 11 email that the voluntary contribution includes planning for the United States to “pledge a significant share” of the estimated costs of IAEA activities under the nuclear deal. The official said that the “full costs” will not fall to the United States for fiscal year 2017 because of “strong international support and recent contributions” by other IAEA member states.

The official said that the State Department estimates that the U.S. voluntary contribution plus the support pledged by other IAEA member states will “fully cover” the IAEA’s financial requirements for implementing the Iran deal in 2017.

A spokesperson for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said in a Feb. 18 email that a total of $13 million in the NNSA budget was requested for “activities related to implementation” of the nuclear deal.    

Missile Restrictions

On Jan. 17, the day after Implementation Day, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions on 11 individuals and entities involved with Iran’s ballistic missile programs.

Iran conducted two ballistic missile tests, in October and November, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which prohibited Iran from testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Nuclear-capable ballistic missiles are generally understood to be missiles capable of delivering 500 kilograms a distance of more than 300 kilometers. Resolution 1929, which the Security Council adopted in 2010, was terminated on Jan. 16 as part of Implementation Day, but the United States went ahead with the sanctions because the violations took place last fall.

Under Resolution 2231, the resolution adopted shortly after the deal was concluded, Iran is “called upon” not to test or develop ballistic missiles “designed” to be nuclear capable.            

Iran’s defense minister, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan, said on Jan. 18 that Iran’s missile program will continue undeterred despite the new sanctions. A statement from the Iranian Foreign Ministry said that the missiles are not designed for carrying nuclear weapons and therefore missile tests “do not violate any international rule.”

But Iranian officials say that Tehran intends to voluntarily constrain the range of its ballistic missiles. Abbas Qaidaari, director of the Defense and Security Studies Department at the Center for Strategic Studies in the Office of the Iranian President, wrote in a Feb. 11 piece for the Atlantic Council that “Iran’s strategic defense plan currently sees no justification” for ranges greater than 2,000-2,300 kilometers. Qaidaari said that although Tehran is committed to developing its “deterrent conventional defense capabilities,” it will limit its ballistic missiles to that range.

The tests last fall involved variants of the Shahab-3 ballistic missile. The Shahab-3 is a medium-range system with a range of less than 2,000 kilometers. 

Inspectors verified that Tehran is adhering to the deal’s nuclear limits.

Perilous Paths: Weaponizing Toxic Chemicals for Law Enforcement

March 2016

By Michael Crowley

Protesters at an elementary school in Nairobi flee to a bridge to escape tear gas used by police on January 10, 2015. The protest, which included students from the school, was over a field that the schoolchildren had used as a playground but had been walled off by a developer for construction. (Photo credit: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)Since its entry into force in 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and its associated implementing body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW),1 have become an important mechanism for global action combating the use of chemical weapons against armed forces and civilian populations under any circumstances, as demonstrated in Syria.

To date, the primary focus of the OPCW, which currently has 192 member states, has been the identification and destruction of all existing chemical weapons arsenals and production facilities around the world.

With the anticipated elimination of all declared chemical weapons stockpiles by 2023, the OPCW is now engaged in a difficult and potentially turbulent process of review, planning, and decision-making likely to transform the nature and activities of the organization for decades to come. Although the future priorities of the OPCW have yet to be collectively agreed by its member states, an initial “vision paper” circulated by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü in 2015 stated that “the operating environment of the…OPCW will change significantly over the coming decade. To stay relevant, the focus of the Organisation’s activities will progressively have to be shifted from disarmament of chemical weapons to preventing their re-emergence.”2

An essential element in the OPCW’s effort to prevent the re-emergence of chemical weapons will be its responses to complex and evolving challenges concerning the appropriate regulation of toxic chemicals. One such challenge is the continuing rapid developments in and convergence of chemistry, biology, and other relevant scientific disciplines and associated technologies. Another is the potential desire from certain quarters for weapons employing toxic chemicals for use in operations in which civilians and fighters are in close proximity or are intermingled. In such situations, there are concerns that the lines separating law enforcement, counterinsurgency, and low-level conflict may become blurred.3 These issues are exemplified by the ongoing debates within the OPCW regarding appropriate regulation of incapacitating chemical agent weapons and riot control agents (RCAs).

Riot Control Agents

Riot control agents, commonly known as tear gases, are defined by the CWC as “any chemical not listed” in one of three schedules of restricted chemicals that can produce “rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”4 Their use as a “method of warfare” is specifically prohibited under the CWC.5 The convention, however, permits the use of such chemicals for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes,”6 provided they are used in “types and quantities” consistent with such purposes.7

Because the CWC does not define or clearly demarcate the boundary between warfare and law enforcement, states might develop varying interpretations of the convention’s restrictions in these areas. Although there is currently agreement among the vast majority of CWC states-parties that RCA use in international and noninternational armed conflict is prohibited, one state-party, the United States, has a national policy permitting use of such agents in certain nonoffensive actions in armed conflict zones.8 Furthermore, previous alleged use by the U.S. military to clear caves in Afghanistan9 and by Turkish armed forces against Kurdish fighters10 were never publicly challenged within the OPCW, raising concerns that such practice may be repeated and potentially gain wider acceptance.

There also is cause for concern over the widespread inappropriate use of riot control agents by law enforcement agencies. When utilized in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions and in line with international human rights law and standards, riot control agents can provide an important alternative to other applications of force more likely to result in injury or death, such as firearms. Law enforcement officials throughout the world regularly use them to disperse violent crowds or to subdue dangerous individuals. Yet, they also are open to misuse. A study of reports from the United Nations and regional human rights bodies and international nongovernmental organizations identified human rights violations committed by law enforcement officials utilizing riot control agents in at least 95 countries or territories from 2009 to 2013.11

Police continue to use these agents to restrict, intimidate, or punish those involved in nonviolent dissent the world over, whether it be children at a Kenyan primary school protesting the seizure of their playground in Nairobi,12 pro-democracy activists engaged in mass demonstrations in the center of Hong Kong,13 or Turkish gay rights activists seeking to march through the streets of Istanbul.14 Sometimes, the chemicals have been employed together with firearms, as in the “organized and premeditated” attack by Guinean police, military, and militia on a political rally held in a stadium in Conakry on September 28, 2009, resulting in the deaths of up to 200 people and the rape of dozens of women and girls.15

A recurring concern voiced by human rights monitors and the medical community has been the use of riot control agents in excessive quantities in open air or in confined spaces, including hospitals, prisons, homes, and even automobiles, where the targeted individuals cannot disperse. In such situations, serious injury or death can result from the toxic properties of the chemical agents or from asphyxiation. This is particularly true for the old, young, or sick. In addition to contravening international human rights standards, the use of riot control agents in such excessive amounts appears to breach the CWC restriction on types and quantities.

Regrettably, despite the ongoing widespread and serious misuse of these chemicals by police and security forces, CWC states-parties have not publicly raised any such cases as matters of concern within the OPCW, nor has any OPCW policymaking organ addressed the nature and scope of “law enforcement” under the CWC. 

Increasing Capability

If the OPCW does not take appropriate action, the situation could dramatically worsen as a result of ongoing development, marketing, and subsequent deployment of a range of systems capable of delivering far greater amounts of riot control agent over wider areas or more extended distances than currently possible with standard law enforcement RCA dispersal mechanisms, such as hand-held sprays, grenades, and single-projectile launchers.

In addition to their potential misuse for collective ill treatment or punishment of crowds, such wide-area RCA delivery mechanisms could be employed as force multipliers in conjunction with firearms, making lethal force more deadly on a large scale. Although nominally developed or acquired for law enforcement, they may also be incorporated into military arsenals, potentially resulting in subsequent use in armed conflict. Certain RCA delivery mechanisms, particularly large-caliber mortar or artillery shells, designated as RCA munitions, could also be used to disperse other toxic chemicals such as classic chemical warfare agents. In addition, current weak trade controls in this area could result in acquisition of RCA delivery mechanisms and misuse by nonstate actors, including armed opposition forces, unregulated private military and security companies, criminal groups, or terrorist organizations.

Investigations by the Omega Research Foundation and the Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project uncovered the marketing of wide-area RCA delivery systems of potential concern.16 Companies in China, France, India, Israel, South Korea, and the United States have developed a variety of multibarrel launchers capable of firing large salvoes of RCA projectiles indiscriminately affecting substantial numbers of people. For example, U.S. manufacturer NonLethal Technologies Inc. currently promotes the IronFist as a “38 mm weapon system with up to 36 barrels…to rapidly deploy a blanket of less lethal munitions into, or over, a hostile crowd.” When loaded with high-capacity 10-inch rounds, each comprising seven mini-grenades containing the riot control agent CS, the IronFist can deliver “over 250 mini-grenades into the crowd within 2 minutes.”17 Related concerns arise from the marketing of automatic grenade launchers such as the 38 mm vehicle-mounted launcher developed by China Ordnance Equipment Research Institute, which is designed to “cope with mass events quickly and effectively” and is capable of firing 200 tear gas grenades per minute from a distance of at least 300 meters.18

 Russian companies in particular reportedly have developed a disturbing range of RCA delivery mechanisms, including 30 mm grenade rounds for automatic launchers, 105 mm rocket-propelled grenades, 82 mm mortar shells weighing 3.5 kilograms and capable of reaching distances of more than 2.6 kilometers, 120 mm munitions weighing 16 kilograms for use in mortars or artillery that could reach up to 6.8 kilometers, munition dispensers carried by helicopters, and even 500-kilogram cluster bombs packed with chemical irritant submunitions designed to be dropped from low-altitude helicopters or aircraft flying up to 12,000 meters above the target. Information on these RCA munitions was last made publicly available in 2009; it is not known whether production continues or stocks remain.19

A contemporary trend has been the development by companies or state research bodies in China, France, Israel, Spain, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States of unmanned ground vehicles or drones capable of carrying RCA-spraying devices or RCA projectile launchers. The South African company Desert Wolf currently promotes the Skunk riot control drone. Capable of holding up to 4,000 pepper balls, this drone is equipped with four high-capacity paintball barrels that can cumulatively release “80 Pepper balls per second, stopping any crowd in its tracks.”20 In October 2015, the company director announced development of a modified Skunk copter capable of carrying up to 48 tear gas grenades, supplied by an unnamed South American company, which can be dropped over crowds.21 Interest in acquiring Skunk drones apparently is not restricted to law enforcement bodies, with Desert Wolf claiming in June 2014 to have “received an order for 25 units” for use by “an international mining house,” with additional potential customers including “mines in South Africa…security companies in…and outside South Africa…and a number of other industrial customers.”22

The employment of certain wide-area RCA delivery mechanisms may be justifiable in particular large-scale law enforcement situations provided they comply with the CWC provision on types and quantities and are used in strict conformity with human rights standards. Other forms of wide-area RCA delivery mechanisms that have been developed, such as artillery shells, aerial bombs, large-caliber mortar shells, and cluster munitions, appear to be completely inappropriate for any form of legitimate law enforcement, having possible utility instead in large-scale human rights abuses or armed conflict. They should be considered to be chemical weapons and treated accordingly.

OPCW Response

In recent years, the OPCW, notably its Scientific Advisory Board, finally has begun to examine these issues. In 2012 the board raised its concerns regarding “reports of the commercial availability of munitions apparently designed to deliver large amounts of riot control agents over long distances.”23 To date, however, few states-parties have clarified their national positions in this area.

Police fire tear gas on pro-democracy demonstrators near government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 28, 2014. (Photo credit: Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images)

One notable exception has been Turkey. In September 2010, the Omega Research Foundation, the Bradford project, and the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies uncovered evidence of the promotion by the Turkish state-owned arms manufacturer Makina ve Kimya Endüstrisi Kurumu of its 120 mm mortar round, the CS MKE MOD 251, at the Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition held in Cape Town, South Africa, in September 2010. This munition weighed 17.34 kilograms, had a maximum range of 8,132 meters, and was filled with CS. In February 2011, Uğur Doğan, the Turkish ambassador to the OPCW, confirmed that such activities were prohibited under the CWC and that this prohibition extended to other “mortar ammunition containing tear gas or any other prohibited substance.” Turkey consequently reported its destruction of all remaining 120 mm CS MKE MOD 251 munitions, together with epoxy models and promotional materials, and took steps to halt the trade, promotion, and brokering of such munitions.24

Turkey’s robust actions in this area provided a powerful precedent for developing common understandings on this issue. Regrettably, the OPCW has not established mechanisms to determine which forms of RCA delivery systems violate the convention or to effectively regulate the trade and use of those that are consistent with the CWC. 

Pharmacological Weapons

Although the use of appropriate types and quantities of riot control agents for law enforcement purposes is permitted under the CWC, certain countries have developed additional weapons employing other distinct toxic chemicals, notably so-called incapacitating chemical agents (ICAs). These weapons, which ostensibly are for law enforcement, skirt or breach the convention’s prohibitions.

At around 5 a.m. on October 26, 2002, Russian Spetsnaz special forces, in their attempt to save 900 hostages held in a Moscow theater by armed Chechen separatists, employed a secret weapon believed to comprise derivatives of the anesthetic opiate fentanyl. Following mass sedation of the occupants, the special forces stormed the theater and shot all the separatists. Although the bulk of the hostages were freed, more than 120 of them were killed by the chemical agent, and many more continue to suffer long-term health problems. To this day, the Russian authorities refuse to publicly disclose the weapon they employed or provide any details of the nature and levels of such weapons they may have developed or stockpiled.25

Although there is no internationally agreed definition of incapacitating chemical agents under the CWC or elsewhere, they can be described as a disparate range of substances including pharmaceutical chemicals, bioregulators, and toxins that are intended to act on the body’s core biochemical and physiological systems to cause prolonged but nonpermanent disability. They include toxic chemicals that act on the central nervous system to produce unconsciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, disorientation, or paralysis. With inappropriate doses, however, death can result. A variety of these agents are legitimately used for medical, veterinary, or other peaceful purposes, but they could potentially be employed as weapons.

Proponents of such weapons have long advocated their development and use in certain extreme law enforcement scenarios, such as the Moscow siege, where there is a need to incapacitate an individual or a group rapidly and completely without causing permanent disability or fatality. The proponents also have raised the possibility of using them as a tool in a variety of military operations, especially in locations where fighters and civilians are in close proximity or intermingled.

Scientific and medical professional associations, arms control organizations, international legal experts, and human rights and humanitarian organizations, as well as a number of states, have criticized research and development of such weapons, contending that their use presents potentially grave dangers to health and well-being. The British Medical Association concluded that “[t]he agent whereby people could be incapacitated without risk of death in a tactical situation does not exist and is unlikely to in the foreseeable future. In such a situation, it is and will continue to be almost impossible to deliver the right agent to the right people in the right dose without exposing the wrong people, or delivering the wrong dose.”26

Disquiet about these weapons is further exacerbated by concern that rapid advances in relevant chemical and life sciences, particularly genomics, synthetic biology, medical pharmacology, and neuroscience, will be harnessed to the development of such weapons. In a 2012 study, the Royal Society gave warning of “active interest in performance degradation applications of neuroscience for both military and law enforcement purposes” and highlighted “indications of interest among a number of States in the development and use of incapacitating chemical agents.”27

A 2014 survey by the Bradford project documented evidence of continued research in relevant fields by Russian scientists. This included computer modeling of the application of “calmatives” against groups of individuals in enclosed spaces and exploration of the interaction of potential incapacitating chemical agents with human receptor sites. The survey also highlighted the possession by China and the previous reported use by Israel of ICA weapons targeting individuals, while states including the Czech Republic, India, Iran, the United Kingdom, and the United States had conducted research since 1997 that was potentially applicable to the study or development of such weapons.28

As toxic chemicals, incapacitating chemical agents clearly come under the scope of the CWC; their use as weapons in armed conflict therefore is prohibited. Yet, there are differing interpretations as to whether such weapons could be used for law enforcement. Regrettably, no policymaking organ of the OPCW has clarified whether these weapons can legitimately be employed for such purposes and, if so, under what circumstances and constraints. CWC states-parties are left to interpret the scope and nature of their obligations in this area, with the danger that a “permissive” interpretation may evolve. Although the UK, the United States, and other countries have now formally declared that they are not developing and do not possess ICA weapons, some states that have conducted research in this area remain silent.

In recent years, there have been concerted attempts by a growing number of states, led by Australia and Switzerland, to encourage the OPCW to resolve the ambiguities concerning the development and use of these weapons. Throughout 2015, Australia, Canada, Germany, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the UK, and the United States raised the issue within the OPCW Executive Council. In the July 2015 meeting of the council, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador, “encourage[d] all delegations to consider and subscribe to the notion that the development of so-called incapacitation agents for law enforcement purposes is incompatible with the Chemical Weapons Convention and to put their views on the record in the Executive Council.”29

A significant advance came at the conference of states-parties in December 2015 with the issuance by Australia of a paper titled “Aerosolisation of Central Nervous System-Acting Chemicals for Law Enforcement Purposes” co-sponsored by 21 states. The paper called on states-parties to make known their national positions on the use of such chemicals in law enforcement and was intended to promote discussion within the OPCW, focusing on “developing concrete recommendations for how to address [these] chemicals in a way that would significantly advance one of the OPCW’s priorities—preventing the re-emergence of chemical weapons.”30

Momentum is building for action on ICA weapons, with a growing number of states formally forswearing use of these agents for law enforcement purposes and calling for OPCW-wide consultations. On the other hand, states that possess or may wish to possess such weapons have remained largely silent, only occasionally formally intervening in OPCW meetings. From the limited indications given, Russia and perhaps other states may well try to block or limit this process as it moves forward toward resolution.31

Preparing for 2018

Russian special forces carry hostages out of a Moscow theater on October 26, 2002, after using an unidentified chemical to subdue the Chechen separatists who had seized the theater. (Photo credit: Anton Denisov/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2018 CWC Review Conference has a mandate to examine long-term issues of concern and to “take into account any relevant scientific and technological developments.”32 The conference will be a critical opportunity to address regulation of ICA weapons, riot control agents, and related means of delivery. States concerned about these issues need to prepare the ground now for fruitful and informed deliberations by setting out their positions in national statements or reports and facilitating discussion in suitable forums. These forums notably include the Executive Council and the annual conferences of states-parties, as well as relevant regional forums.

As a first step, states should affirm that their current national practice is to restrict the use of toxic chemicals for law enforcement to riot control agents. Where such a restriction does not exist, states should introduce national moratoriums halting the initiation or continuation of development, acquisition, stockpiling, transfer, and use of ICA weapons for law enforcement purposes. Building on such national action, a group of like-minded states could introduce a moratorium on such activities at the plurilateral level.

States also should consider pressing for the establishment of a dedicated, open-ended working group or some other formal mechanism within the OPCW to make recommendations on these issues for consideration by the review conference. In addition to addressing ICA weapons, the working group should seek to clarify the limitations on RCA use for law enforcement, specifically taking into account CWC constraints on types and quantities as well as those arising from international human rights law. The working group also should develop criteria for determining which means of delivering and dispersing toxic chemicals are inappropriate for law enforcement purposes and would consequently breach the convention.

In the coming years, the OPCW is expected to oversee the destruction of the last declared elements of Cold War-era state chemical weapons programs. To remain relevant, the organization must embark on a process of reform and renewal to meet the new security challenges. Critical to the success of this process will be whether and how the CWC states-parties resolve certain controversial issues that they have previously avoided, notably the development and use of weapons employing toxic chemicals for law enforcement purposes. Failure to set clear boundaries in this area risks the introduction and misuse of inappropriate weapons by police, security, and military forces; the danger that such weapons will subsequently be employed for actions beyond law enforcement; and the threat of their proliferation to other state and nonstate actors. In addition to the detrimental consequences for human rights and human security, such developments could undermine the stability of the convention itself.


1.  For an online version of the text of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), see Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction,” n.d., https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/CWC/CWC_en.pdf.

2.  OPCW Technical Secretariat, “The OPCW in 2025: Ensuring a World Free of Chemical Weapons,” S/1252/2015, March 6, 2015.

3.  OPCW Technical Secretariat, “Report of the Advisory Panel on Future Priorities of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” S/951/2011, July 25, 2011, para. 13.

4.   CWC, art. II.7.

5.   Ibid., art. I.5.

6.   Ibid., art. II.9

7.   Ibid., art. II.1.a.

8.   Exec. Order No. 11850, 40 Fed. Reg. 16187 (April 8, 1975). See also U.S. Department of Defense,  “Law of War Manual,” June 2015, sec. 6.16, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/Law-of-War-Manual-June-2015.pdf.

9.   James D. Fry, “Contextualized Legal Reviews for the Methods and Means of Warfare: Cave Combat and International Humanitarian Law,” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 44, No. 2 (February 2006): 453-519.

10.   Sunshine Project, “A Survey of Biological and Biochemical Weapons Related Research Activities in Turkey,” Sunshine Project Country Study, No. 3 (December 8, 2004), p. 15, http://www.sunshine-project.de/infos/Laenderstudien/Country%20Report%20Turkey.pdf.

11.   Michael Crowley, Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and Their Means of Delivery (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 50-70.

12.   Jeffrey Gettleman, “Kenya Investigates Use of Tear Gas on Schoolchildren,” The New York Times, January 20, 2015.

13.   BBC News, “Hong Kong: Tear Gas and Clashes at Democracy Protest,” September 28, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-29398962.

14.   Amnesty International, “Amnesty: Pride March Ban Is a New Low,” June 30, 2015, http://humanrightsturkey.org/2015/06/30/amnesty-pride-march-ban-is-a-new-low/.

15.   After surrounding all exits, police fired tear gas into the stadium, causing fear and confusion among the tens of thousands of peaceful pro-democracy supporters within. The combined forces then entered the stadium, shooting directly at the packed and terrified crowds. According to an International Commission of Inquiry, “[D]ozens of people attempting to escape through the stadium gates either suffocated or were trampled to death in stampedes, which were compounded by the use of tear gas.” Human Rights Watch estimated that 150 to 200 were killed and dozens of women and girls were raped in this attack. UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 18 December 2009 Addressed to the President of the Security Council by the Secretary-General,” S/2009/693, December 18, 2009, annex (containing “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry Mandated to Establish the Facts and Circumstances of the Events of 28 September 2009 in Guinea” at paragraph 198); Human Rights Watch, “Guinea: September 28 Massacre Was Premeditated,” October 27, 2009, https://www.hrw.org/news/2009/10/27/guinea-september-28-massacre-was-premeditated.

16.   Michael Crowley, “Drawing the Line: Regulation of ‘Wide Area’ Riot Control Agent Delivery Mechanisms Under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project and Omega Research Foundation, April 2013, http://www.omegaresearchfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/BNLWRP%20ORF%20RCA%20Munitions%20Report%20April%202013.pdf; Michael Crowley, “Tear Gassing by Remote Control: The Development and Promotion of Remotely Operated Means of Delivering or Dispersing Riot Control Agents,” Oxford Research Group, December 2015, http://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/sites/default/files/Tear%20Gassing%20By%20Remote%20Control%20Report.pdf.

17.   NonLethal Technologies Inc., “The IronFist: The Cost Effective Solution for Rapid Deployment of Non-Lethal Munitions,” n.d., http://www.nonlethaltechnologies.com/Video/IRONFIST.pdf.

18.   Crowley, “Tear Gassing by Remote Control,” pp. 10-11 (citing an undated catalog distributed at the Asia Pacific China Police Expo 2012 by the China Ordnance Equipment Research Institute in Beijing on May 22-25, 2012). Information is from an unofficial translation of the Chinese original on file with the Omega Research Foundation.

19.   Crowley, “Drawing the Line,” pp. 25-38.

20.   Desert Wolf, “Skunk Riot Control Copter,” n.d., http://www.desert-wolf.com/dw/products/unmanned-aerial-systems/skunk-riot-control-copter.html.

21.   Guy Martin, “Desert Wolf Adding Grenades to Skunk Riot Control UAV,” Defenceweb, October 7, 2015, http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=40961:desert-wolf-adding-grenades-to-skunk-riot-control-uav&catid=35:Aerospace&Itemid=107.

22.   Leo Kelion, “African Firm Is Selling Pepper-Spray Bullet Firing Drones,” BBC News, June 18, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-27902634.

23.   OPCW Conference of the States Parties, “Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on Developments in Science and Technology for the Third Special Session of the Conference of the States Parties to Review the Operation of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” RC-3/DG.1, October 29, 2012.

24.   Crowley, Chemical Control, pp. 102, 232-234.

25.   Ibid., pp. 15-16.

26.   BMA Board of Science, “The Use of Drugs as Weapons: The Concerns and Responsibilities of Healthcare Professionals,” British Medical Association, May 2007, http://bmaopac.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/exlibris/aleph/a21_1/apache_media/4X3AARHLYDEYT6TMU9X91F5AUJYBI1.pdf.

27.   The Royal Society, “Brain Waves Module 3: Neuroscience, Conflict and Security,” February 2012, https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/projects/brain-waves/2012-02-06-BW3.pdf

28.   Michael Crowley and Malcolm Dando, “Down the Slippery Slope? A Study of Contemporary Dual-Use Chemical and Life Science Research Potentially Applicable to Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons,” Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project and Biochemical Security 2030 Project, October 2014, https://biochemsec2030dotorg.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/down-the-slippery-slope-final-web.pdf

29.   Robert P. Mikulak, Statement to the OPCW Executive Council, July 7, 2015, https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/EC/79/en/USA.pdf.

30.   OPCW Conference of the States Parties, “Aerosolisation of Central Nervous System-Acting Chemicals for Law Enforcement Purposes,” C-20/NAT.2/Rev.1, December 3, 2015 (joint paper by Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Cyprus, Germany, Finland, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

31.   OPCW Executive Council, “Statement by the Delegation of the Russian Federation at the Seventy-Ninth Session of the Executive Council,” EC-79/NAT.15, July 8, 2015.

32.   CWC, art. VIII.22.

Michael Crowley is project coordinator of the Bradford Non-Lethal Weapons Research Project at Bradford University and is a research associate with the Omega Research Foundation. He has worked for more than 20 years on arms control and human rights issues with organizations such as Amnesty International, the Arias Foundation, the British American Security Information Council, and the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre. Research for this article is drawn in part from his book Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and Their Means of Delivery (2016).

The states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention need to resolve certain controversial issues that they have previously avoided, notably the development...

Budget Would Raise Nuclear Spending

March 2016

By Kingston Reif

In this video image, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work speaks to reporters about the fiscal year 2017 defense budget request at the Pentagon on February 9. Photo credit: Defense Department)The Obama administration on Feb. 9 released a final budget request that proposes to continue increasing spending for programs to rebuild the U.S. nuclear triad as Defense Department officials repeated warnings that the modernization plans may become unsustainable.

Comments by U.S. civilian and military officials suggest that several programs will hit their periods of peak spending at about the same time, forcing the U.S. government to choose between the nuclear modernization effort and other military priorities unless overall defense spending rises significantly above the levels currently projected.

The Air Force and Navy are seeking approximately $3.6 billion in fiscal year 2017, which begins on Oct. 1, to build new fleets of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), ballistic missile submarines, long-range bombers, and short-range tactical aircraft, an increase of roughly $1.2 billion, or 50 percent, over the amount that Congress approved for fiscal year 2016. The request keeps the expected production timeline for these programs largely on schedule.

Meanwhile, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department, is requesting $9.2 billion for its nuclear weapons activities, an increase of almost $400 million, or 4 percent, above the enacted level for the current year.

Nuclear modernization costs are scheduled to peak during the 2020s and overlap with large increases in projected spending on modernization programs for conventional weapons systems. Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), wrote in a January report that “if not altered from current plans,” these modernization programs “will require either an increase in defense spending or a reallocation of resources within the defense budget.”

At a Feb. 9 series of press briefings at the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said that if funding for nuclear modernization “comes out of our conventional forces, that will be very, very, very problematic for us.”

Similarly, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said at a CSIS event on Nov. 30 that the long-term cost to modernize the triad is “a concern.” He explained that the “easy solution” would be to “bump up” resources for nuclear weapons for the next 15 years but that such a funding increase is “probably not realistic.”

Overall, the administration requested $551 billion for national defense in fiscal year 2017. That figure includes the Defense Department’s regular budget activities and the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs.

Spending on Delivery Systems Rises

The highest-priority nuclear triad replacement program remains the Navy’s plan to replace its current fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 new subs, called the Ohio replacement program. Under the Navy’s budget request, the program would receive $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2017, an increase of $360 million above the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The request includes $1.1 billion in research and development and, for the first time, $778 million in advance procurement funding to build the first boat in the new class.

An Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine moves through the Hood Canal on its way to Naval Base Kitsap in Washington state on February 15. (Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy)Navy officials have repeatedly warned that the service’s projected long-term budget is not large enough to accommodate the program to build the new submarines and meet its needs for conventional ships. (See ACT, October 2013.) The Navy estimates that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035, will cost $139 billion to develop and build.

In another high-profile program, proposed funding for the Air Force’s plan to build approximately 1,000 nuclear-capable cruise missiles in the coming years continues to rise. The service is seeking $95.6 million in fiscal year 2017 for research and development for a long-range standoff weapon, almost six times as much as the $16.1 million that Congress appropriated for the current fiscal year. The new standoff missile would replace the Air Force’s nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which has been operational since 1986.

Government and think tank estimates suggest that the total cost of building the new missile and refurbishing the associated warhead would be about $25 billion over 20 years. 

In addition, the Air Force is seeking $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2017, an increase of $624 million over the fiscal year 2016 appropriation, for the program to build a new fleet of 80-100 nuclear-capable long-range strategic bombers. The new bombers are scheduled to enter service in the mid-2020s, and the entire fleet could cost more than $100 billion to produce, according to some nongovernmental estimates.

In the budget documents, the Air Force said it is planning to request $12.1 billion for the new bomber program between fiscal years 2017 and 2021, a significant reduction relative to the five-year budget projection of $15.6 billion cited in last year’s budget documents. Carolyn Gleason, a senior Pentagon budget official, told reporters during the Feb. 9 briefings that the change reflects a revised cost estimate for the program in the wake of the awarding of a contract to Northrop Grumman last fall to build the bombers.

The program to develop a replacement for the current force of land-based Minuteman III ICBMs also would get a boost under the administration’s request. The Air Force is requesting $114 million for the program, an increase of almost $39 million over the appropriation for the current fiscal year.

The service is currently planning to procure 642 replacement missiles and update the existing missile infrastructure at an estimated cost of $62.3 billion over the next 30 years. (See ACT, July/August 2015.) According to the new budget documents, the projected deployment date for the replacement missiles is 2028. That represents slippage of a year since last year’s request.

Air Force officials have expressed growing alarm about the cost of the service’s nuclear modernization plans. “Our problems become unmanageable” when the costs for the ICBM replacement program begin to peak, said Lt. Gen. James Holmes, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, at a Feb. 12 press briefing at the Pentagon.

Warhead Request Grows

The NNSA is requesting $220 million to refurbish the existing ALCM warhead that would be delivered by the new ALCM under development by the Air Force. That is an increase of $25.2 million above the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The NNSA weapons budget also would increase funding to update a key part of the W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead and build a new uranium-processing facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In contrast, the budget would slightly decrease spending to rebuild the B61 gravity bomb.

In a Feb. 10 press call with reporters, retired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, the NNSA administrator, said the NNSA is facing a “formidable” planned increase in spending on life extension programs and infrastructure improvements. Peak funding for these efforts occurs earlier than the Defense Department’s expected peak funding years for triad modernization, he said.

The budget calls for increases even as officials warn the plan may be unsustainable. 

Terminate MOX Fuel Plant, Budget Says

March 2016

By Kingston Reif and Daniel Horner

The Obama administration is seeking a permanent stop to construction of the facility that has been the centerpiece of the effort to get rid of plutonium withdrawn from the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Under the plan, described in budget documents released Feb. 9 and a conference call with journalists the following day, the administration would spend $270 million in the coming fiscal year for termination costs for the plant, with costs of a similar magnitude expected for the next few years. At the same time, the administration would spend $15 million in fiscal year 2017 for preliminary work on the new plutonium-disposition path that the Energy Department and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have chosen.

The proposal was part of the administration’s $1.8 billion request for NNSA nonproliferation programs in fiscal year 2017.

The plant, which is under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, was designed to turn surplus weapons plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—for use in nuclear power reactors. Under an agreement that Russia and the United States signed in 2000, each country is required to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium.

The Obama administration was widely seen as skeptical of the viability of the MOX fuel strategy since it announced in 2013 that it was considering alternatives. (See ACT, May 2013.) In the recently released budget documents, the NNSA said studies it had commissioned “confirm that the MOX fuel approach will be significantly more expensive than anticipated and will require approximately $800 million to $1 billion annually for decades.”

The new approach, known as “dilute and dispose,” would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. During the Feb. 10 conference call, Kelly Cummins, NNSA associate assistant deputy administrator for fissile materials disposition, said the annual costs would rise to $300-400 million.

Supporters of the MOX fuel plant, led by the South Carolina congressional delegation, have suggested that the new approach could face technical, legal, and political obstacles.

Cummins said the termination costs for the MOX fuel plant were expected to total $500-750 million. But she emphasized that those figures are a rough estimate and are “subject to negotiation” with the contractors hired to build the plant.

The lead contractor is CB&I Areva MOX Services Group.

Nuclear Security Programs Cut

Excluding the MOX fuel program, the Obama administration is asking for $1.5 billion for NNSA nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism programs, a decrease of $62.4 million, or 3.8 percent, from the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The drop is even steeper when measured against what the NNSA projected it would request for these programs in its fiscal year 2016 submission, which was issued in February 2015. The agency had said it planned to ask for $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2017, or $185 million more than the actual proposal.

The largest proposed reduction in the request is to the Global Material Security program, which has the task of improving the security of nuclear materials around the world, securing orphaned or disused radiological sources, and strengthening nuclear smuggling detection and deterrence. The program would get $337 million, a $89.6 million reduction from the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The NNSA is requesting $46 million for the international security subcomponent of this program, a decrease of $84.5 million from the fiscal year 2016 enacted level and $182 million from the level projected in last year’s request. According to budget documents, the decline from the enacted level “reflects a commitment to reduce” unspent money left over from previous fiscal years by spending it in fiscal year 2017, permitting a lower request.

In a Feb. 18 email to Arms Control Today, an NNSA spokesperson said the agency does “not have exact projections of carryover” but anticipates “sufficient funds to implement priority tasks” in fiscal year 2017.

In addition, the budget submission reveals that the NNSA is now planning to secure 4,394 buildings containing high-priority radioactive nuclear material by 2033, a change from the previous goal of securing 8,500 sites by 2044.

The NNSA spokesperson said the revision is the result of shifting the focus “from a primarily protect[ion]-based approach to one that emphasizes permanent threat reduction through the removal of sources and promotion of non-isotopic, alternative technologies, when feasible.”

The Material Management and Minimization program, which supports the removal of civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium around the world and converts HEU-fueled research reactors and medical isotope production facilities to the use of low-enriched uranium, would receive $341 million, an increase of $24.5 million over the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

Nuclear material removal activities would get $68.9 million, a decrease of $46 million. The drop is based in part on “a reduced scope of work” in fiscal year 2017 due to “the completion of several major initiatives in time for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, including completion of the removal of all HEU and plutonium from Japan’s Fast Critical Assembly,” according to budget documents. 

Elsewhere in the NNSA nonproliferation budget, funding for Nonproliferation and Arms Control activities would fall slightly, from a fiscal year 2016 appropriation of $130 million to $125 million. Spending for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development activities, which focus on technologies used in tracking foreign nuclear weapons programs, illicit diversion of nuclear materials, and nuclear detonations, would fall to $394 million from its $419 million fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The NNSA nonproliferation budget request also includes $13 million to support the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, which passed a critical point in its implementation in January (see "Iran Nuclear Deal Implemented"). 

Funding Proposal Questioned

Some observers continue to question the wisdom of proposed reductions in funding for NNSA nuclear and radiological security activities, especially in the run-up to the final nuclear security summit, which is scheduled to take place in Washington March 31-April 1 (see "Nuclear Summit Seeks Sustainable Results").

An Energy Department task force report on NNSA nonproliferation programs released last year expressed concern about the recent trend of falling budgets for those programs, noting that appropriations declined from $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2013 to $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2015, a reduction of 25 percent. “The need to counter current and likely future challenges to nonproliferation justifies increased, rather than reduced, investment in this area,” the report said. (See ACT, May 2015.)

Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in a Feb. 19 interview that “to propose big cuts in nuclear security spending weeks before hosting the last nuclear security summit is a mistake that will undermine U.S. leadership.”

“Congress should act to correct President [Barack] Obama’s mistake,” added Bunn, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors.

During the Feb. 10 conference call, retired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, the NNSA administrator, disputed the claim that the budget request sends a bad signal ahead of the summit.

The proposed fiscal year 2017 spending levels on nonproliferation programs reflect “a hard-headed business decision about where the money is and how we pay for all the things we need to do,” Klotz said. “We’re satisfied with what we have.”

Designed to make plutonium fuel, the plant is now too expensive, officials say. 

Interim Step on HEU Reactors Proposed

March 2016

By Kingston Reif

The Advanced Test Reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory, shown above in a May 2013 photo, is one of the high-performance U.S. research reactors that uses highly enriched uranium fuel and is not able to use existing types of low-enriched uranium fuel. (Photo credit: Idaho National Laboratory)The U.S. government should seek to convert some civilian research reactors currently using weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to lower-enriched HEU fuel as an interim step on the way to fueling the reactors with a new kind of low-enriched uranium (LEU), according to a new report from a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The report, which was released on Jan. 28, also recommends that the White House develop a 50-year strategy that evaluates future U.S. civilian needs for neutrons and “how these can best be provided by reactors and other sources that do not use highly enriched uranium.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said it had “concerns” about the recommendation for an interim conversion step. In a Feb. 24 email to Arms Control Today, a spokesperson for the NNSA, a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department, said the recommendation “runs counter to” the U.S. policy of pursuing “the minimization of the civilian use of HEU globally.”

Research reactors fueled by weapons-grade HEU continue to be used to produce neutrons for research and other civilian applications. Since 1978 the United States has sought to minimize and where possible eliminate the use of HEU in civilian research reactors. Currently, 74 such reactors remain to be converted or shut down, according to the report. Eight reactors in the United States still use HEU fuel.

Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90 percent uranium-235, and LEU is enriched to less than 20 percent. Converting reactors to LEU use would reduce the risks that this material could be used to make a nuclear explosive device.

The report expressed concern that the conversion of the remaining reactors is taking much longer than originally envisioned. It noted that the U.S. goal in 2004 was to complete the conversions by 2014 but that the goal today is to complete them by 2035.

“There are significant technical and nontechnical obstacles associated with eliminating HEU from civilian research reactors,” the report said. 

One obstacle has been that making the higher-density LEU fuel required to convert high-performance research reactors in the United States and Europe has turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated. The report warned that the new fuel might not even be available by 2035.

Consequently, in order to reduce the use of weapons-grade HEU in high-performance reactors, the report called for conversion of these reactors to the use of fuel that has an enrichment level of 25 to 45 percent. All but one of the nine high-performance reactors in the United States and Europe that use weapons-grade HEU could be converted in this manner in approximately five years, the report said.

Reducing the fuel enrichment to 45 percent “cuts the attractiveness” of the fuel for use in a nuclear explosive device “by about 40 percent,” compared to 90 percent enrichment, according to the report. The report calculated that, by pursuing this approach for the eight reactors, the use of approximately 3,400 kilograms of weapons-grade HEU could be avoided until the reactors are converted to run on LEU in roughly 12 to 17 years.

In a Feb. 3 posting on the website of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, William Tobey, a senior fellow at the center and a member of the National Academies panel that produced the report, wrote that the interim-step recommendation “should in no way be construed as lack of support for eliminating civilian use of HEU. Rather, it is recognition of the fact that estimates of when conversion would be possible have changed, and an effort to minimize risk in light of those changes.”

But another expert disagreed with the recommendation, expressing a concern similar to the NNSA’s about the impact on the global effort to phase out civilian use of HEU. In a Feb. 24 email, Alan Kuperman, a political scientist at the University of Texas, said one problem with the National Academies’ approach is that it “would reduce the prospect of converting existing high-performance research reactors to LEU fuel since their operators would resist the expense and inconvenience of having to convert twice.”

The most significant nontechnical obstacle to converting the remaining HEU-fueled civilian reactors identified by the report is that more than 40 percent of these reactors are located in Russia. The report said that  “conversion of its domestic research reactors is not a high national priority for Russia” and noted that “Russian-U.S. collaboration on research reactor conversion...has all but ceased during the past year” due to the downturn in relations between the two countries over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Due to the downturn, the NNSA is no longer planning to support the conversion of 41 reactors in Russia, according to the department’s fiscal year 2017 budget submission. This figure includes both civilian reactors and reactors used to power Russian icebreaker ships.

The National Academies report recommended that the United States seek to engage “Russian scientists and engineers to continue scientific exchanges and interactions that formed the basis for previous progress in....HEU minimization,” primarily in countries that used to be members of the Soviet Union.

In 2012, Congress tasked the National Academies with assessing the progress toward eliminating all worldwide use of HEU in research reactor fuel and medical isotope production facilities. The January report examined the status of conversion of research reactors to LEU use. Another report examining the status of medical isotope production without HEU targets is to be issued later this year.

Julia Phillips, former vice president and chief technology officer at Sandia National Laboratories, chaired the committee that authored the January report.

Experts outline a plan for converting some reactors now using weapons-grade fuel. 

Space Code Process Called ‘Unsuccessful’

March 2016

By Timothy Farnsworth

A U.S. official in recent weeks has publicly said for the first time that the process for negotiating an international code of conduct that would establish rules for behavior in outer space has failed.

At a Jan. 11 event at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Mallory Stewart, deputy assistant secretary of state for emerging security challenges and defense policy, described the negotiations as “unsuccessful.” She elaborated on the comments in a Feb. 16 email to Arms Control Today.

In her Jan. 11 remarks, Stewart cited a lack of consensus by countries over fundamental definitions of terminology, such as what constitutes a space weapon and a peaceful use of space. “We’ve had the problem across the board where a completely civil-oriented and peaceful use of space is accused by another country of being a sort of weaponization of space,” she said. She went on to say that the debate over “the code highlighted that we need to come to some consensus on these basic terms.”

Stewart said once countries reach a basic consensus on these definitions, they could move forward, first to a “political agreement” that sets parameters of “responsible behavior” and “then potentially a long-term treaty if we can get to the point [at] which we all work from the same definitions and [the treaty] is verifiable.”

The goal of the proposed code is to set guidelines that would reduce the risk of debris-generating events in space and increase transparency in space operations in order to avoid collisions between space assets and debris.

Since 2008, when the European Union began the process of developing a code, the deadline for producing a final text had been repeatedly pushed back. The code was supposed to be opened for formal negotiations last July at the United Nations, but the agenda was amended to include issues related to finalizing the process for negotiating the code, such as deciding on the appropriate venue. At that time, officials from key countries indicated there was no timetable for finalizing the agreement. (See ACT, September 2015.)

In her Feb. 16 email, Stewart said, “[W]e understand that the European Union continues to discuss next steps on the Code. The international community is certainly in agreement that the space environment is at risk today from challenges arising from natural and man-made hazards.” EU officials have not announced a timetable for further negotiations on the code.

During her Jan. 11 remarks, Stewart stressed other diplomatic initiatives the United States is undertaking in order to “inspire responsible behavior in space and dissuade irresponsible behavior.” She said the United States is pursuing bilateral and multilateral space security dialogues that aim to “prevent miscommunication, misperception, and miscalculations” by sharing threat assessments and other information on the space environment. She said the dialogues also would improve the resiliency of the space assets of the United States and its allies by coordinating technology use and sharing capabilities. She said the State Department wants to pursue these dialogues over the coming years with more and more partners. Making space situational awareness as wide as possible through State Department and Defense Department initiatives will give the United States a greater chance of holding other states accountable for their behavior, Stewart said.

“It’s not that we don’t want to ever get to legal constructs into space,” Stewart said. Rather, she said, the international community is “just trying to figure out how to get there in a really informed manner from the same…starting point and with the same understandings.” 

A U.S. official in recent weeks has publicly said for the first time that the process for negotiating an international code of conduct that would establish rules for behavior in outer space has failed.

U.S. Will Skip Disarmament Meetings

March 2016

By Kingston Reif

The United States will not participate in a working group on disarmament taking place in Geneva this year, according to the State Department.

In a Feb. 18 email to Arms Control Today, Blake Narendra, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said the United States has been open to participating in the disarmament group. But he said that the agenda and rules for the Geneva meetings “will not result in constructive dialogue on nuclear weapons or conditions under which nuclear disarmament can best be achieved.”

During last year’s meeting of the UN General Assembly First Committee, UN member states voted to approve a resolution sponsored by Mexico creating the working group. (See ACT, December 2015.) It is open ended, which means that all UN members can participate.

Under the resolution, the mandate of the group is to “substantively address concrete effective legal measures, legal provisions and norms” necessary to “attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.”

The working group also will “substantively address recommendations on other measures that could contribute to taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.” The resolution said the group should convene in Geneva in 2016 for up to 15 days and present a report on its work to the General Assembly at its session later this year.

The working group held its first meeting Feb. 22-26. Many NATO members and East Asian U.S. allies that attended the meeting joined a statement delivered by Canada saying they “chose to participate” in the group in part because existing institutions that deal with disarmament have been bogged down by “both internal and external challenges which seriously impede [their] effectiveness.”

Like the United States, the four other countries recognized as nuclear-weapon states by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—did not attend the February meeting.

The working group is scheduled to reconvene during the first two weeks of May and once more during the week of Aug. 22. 

The United States will not participate in a working group on disarmament taking place in Geneva this year, according to the State Department.

Pentagon Wants to Resume JLENS Exercise

March 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Army is asking Congress for additional funding to resume an exercise of a blimp-borne radar system designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats despite a major malfunction last October.

Defense News last month quoted Adm. Bill Gortney, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, as saying that “[i]t is in the best interest of the nation to continue the program.”

“Investigators took a hard look at the causes of the incident, and I am confident that we have a plan of action to safely fly the aerostat again,” he added.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter concurred with the decision to resume the exercise, according to multiple news reports.

One of the two tethered blimps that make up the current test deployment of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) detached from its mooring station near Baltimore last October, dragging 6,700 feet of cable for three hours before finally coming to rest. (See ACT, December 2015.)

At the time of the crash, the system was in the midst of a planned three-year exercise over the area around Washington. The exercise was designed to demonstrate the system’s capabilities for homeland defense and determine its future.

In the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress slashed $30 million from the budget request of $40.6 million for JLENS in the wake of the crash. (See ACT, January/Feburary 2016.)

InsideDefense.com reported on Feb. 17 that, in order to resume the exercise, the Defense Department is asking lawmakers to transfer an additional $27 million to the program for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. It is not clear where the additional funds will come from.

The Los Angeles Times reported on Feb. 14 that the blimp crashed because a device designed to automatically deflate it in the event of trouble failed to activate because batteries had not been installed as a power source.

Meanwhile, in a new report released in January, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director for operational test and evaluation, reiterated concerns he has raised in the past about whether JLENS can work as intended. The report identified numerous problems, including vulnerability to electronic interference, that could undermine the effectiveness and suitability of the ongoing exercise of the system. 

The U.S. Army is asking Congress for additional funding to resume an exercise of a blimp-borne radar system designed to detect and track objects...


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