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“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferatio nof weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
Senator
January 28, 2004
Op-ed published

Keep nuclear testing off the table

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Originally published in The Boston Globe, June 13, 2020.

Our nation and the world face a daunting array of challenges. Surely, this is not the time to ignite a new arms race with Russia and China — let alone to begin testing nuclear weapons again, as senior officials at the White House have been considering.

One of the most consequential responsibilities of the president of the United States is to pursue policies aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear war, curtailing the nuclear arsenals of America’s adversaries, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. For decades, presidents of both major parties have embraced these momentous responsibilities and helped create a system of treaties and agreements that have reduced the nuclear danger.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is backing out of vital treaties that have helped avert a catastrophic conflagration with Russia, our main nuclear rival, and is stoking nuclear tensions even further.

President Trump claims that he wants to constrain the arms race, which he says is “getting out of control.” However, he has withdrawn from one arms control treaty after another and rebuffed Russia’s offer to extend the sole remaining arms limitation agreement, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in eight months.

Last month, the president’s new envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, threatened to let New START expire and warned that the United States is prepared to spend Russia and China “into oblivion”in order to “win” a new nuclear arms race if they do not agree to a new nuclear deal on Trump’s (as yet undefined) terms.

Then, on May 22, the Washington Post revealed that senior White House officials have discussed the option of conducting the first US nuclear test explosion in 28 yearsas a way to pressure Russian and Chinese leaders into accepting vague US terms. The proposal was described in the Post as “very much an ongoing conversation” within the administration.

Billingslea announced on Tuesday that he would meet with his Russian counterpart in Vienna on June 22. While it is a positive that they are talking, there is no realistic chance of concluding a new and more ambitious nuclear arms control deal with Russia, let alone China, before START is due to expire. It would be foreign policy malpractice to gamble away that treaty’s important limits on Russia’s nuclear arsenal in a desperate attempt to coerce unilateral concessions from Moscow and Beijing. The common-sense path forward should be to agree with Russia to extend New START by five years, as allowed for in the treaty. That would provide time for talks on further nuclear reductions with Russia and for an agreement to halt the potential growth of China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.

And most certainly, a demonstration nuclear test should not be on the negotiating table. Whatever Trump and his acolytes might tell themselves, a nuclear test blast by the United States would do nothing to rein in Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals or improve the environment for negotiations. Rather, it would raise tensions and probably trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other nuclear actors, leading to an all-out global arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.

Other nuclear-armed countries, such as Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea would have far more to gain from nuclear testing than would the United States. Since a bipartisan majority in Congress halted underground nuclear testing in 1992, the US nuclear weapons labs have devised other technical means to ensure the reliability of US warheads; other nuclear powers would probably seize the opportunity provided by a US nuclear blast to engage in multiple explosive tests of their own, which could help them perfect new and more dangerous types of warheads.

Nuclear testing is a dangerous vestige of a bygone era. Since 1945, at least eight countries have conducted more than 2,000 nuclear test explosions, including 1,030 by the United States alone. About one-fourth of these nuclear tests were detonated in the atmosphere, which killed or sickened thousands of US military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well as civilians living downwind. The worldwide spread of radioactive isotopes from these tests — among them strontium-90, which accumulated in children’s teeth — provoked widespread protests against nuclear testing and helped create a nearly universal consensus that all such tests should be stopped.

American leadership played a key role in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, in 1996, which prohibits all nuclear tests of any explosive yield anywhere. The United States and 183 other states have signed the treaty, though it has not yet been ratified by several countries, including the United States. Only one country — North Korea — has detonated nuclear tests in this century, and even Kim Jong Un has now declared a testing moratorium.

Unfortunately, President Trump could order a simple demonstration nuclear test explosion underground at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas in as little as six months.

Congress can and should step in to prevent such recklessness. Republicans and Democrats should join Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Charles Schumer of New York, and others who have proposed a prohibition on the use of taxpayers’ funds to resume nuclear weapons testing. Parallel efforts are being led by Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, and others in the House.

For the sake of our generation and generations to come, it is time to act to avoid a pandemic of dangerous nuclear weapons testing and proliferation.

Read the original article in The Boston Globe.

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Debating US nuclear spending in the age of the coronavirus

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Originally published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 10, 2020.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to exact a terrible human and economic toll on the United States, Americans are adjusting how they view national security. There also appears to be agreement, even within the senior leadership of the Defense Department, that the military budget, which has seen significant growth during the Trump administration, is likely to be pared back in the coming years as federal deficits soar.

So it should be no surprise that the havoc wrought by the virus has also fanned the flames of an ongoing debate about the Trump administration’s aggressive and costly plans to sustain and upgrade the US nuclear arsenal.

But some supporters of the status quo will not countenance any challenge to business as usual. In an April 17 conversation hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Frank Miller, a distinguished former US government official, argued that it is illegitimate and irresponsible to cite the current public health and economic crisis as a rationale to rethink US nuclear weapons spending priorities. A close examination reveals, however, that his reasoning is deeply flawed.

The unsustainable nuclear budget. At the Arms Control Association, where I am the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, we have long argued that the administration’s approach is unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe. The financial and opportunity costs have steadily grown and the biggest nuclear weapons modernization bills are just beginning to arrive. Government officials in charge of the nuclear weapons enterprise warn about the “pervasive and overwhelming risk” facing the current nuclear modernization program.

The danger posed by the plans is on full display in the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request.

The Defense and Energy Departments are requesting $44.5 billion for next year to sustain and modernize US nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure, a larger-than-anticipated increase of about $7.3 billion, or 19 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 level. Meanwhile, the administration is recommending a lower overall national defense budget than Congress provided last year.

The combination of a decreased topline budget but an increased nuclear budget means that other defense programs would have to be cut. Some programs on the chopping block include the Navy’s planned second Virginia class submarine, the Energy Department’s efforts to clean up nuclear waste leftover from US nuclear weapons production during the Cold War, and the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which supports global efforts to detect and secure dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus.

And this was all before the coronavirus began its deadly march across the country and before Congress spent several trillion dollars trying to save the US economy from complete collapse.

Although Pentagon officials insist that nuclear weapons should be shielded from possible future defense budget cuts, the pressure on the federal budget imposed by the response to the virus is likely to exacerbate the affordability and execution challenges confronting the administration’s nuclear spending plans. If great power competition with China is the Pentagon’s top priority, is it prudent to sacrifice a Virginia class submarine every year for the next 10 to 15 years to attempt to keep an excessive and overburdened nuclear modernization effort on track? The answer should be no, especially in light of the quantitative and qualitative superiority of the US nuclear arsenal over China’s.

In the view of many, the Trump administration’s proposal to expand spending on nuclear weapons is a sad and dangerous illustration of wildly misplaced federal spending priorities. As it proposed a 19 percent increase for nuclear weapons next year, the White House initially planned to slash the budgets for the Centers for Disease Control by 19 percent and the National Institutes of Health by 7 percent. The Pentagon’s proposal to cut the budget for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program in order to fund weapons modernization amid a global pandemic is shockingly reckless.

“How can we prepare and arm ourselves so completely for wars that may never come,” wrote Tyler Rogoway, editor of The Drive, in March, “but we are so ill-prepared for one that we knew was more likely around the corner than not?”

Inexplicably, the unprecedented economic crisis facing the nation hasn’t stopped some Trump administration officials from raising the prospect of even greater spending on nuclear weapons above and beyond what is already planned. Marshall Billingslea, President Trump’s special envoy for arms control, said recently that if Russia and China don’t agree to US demands for talks on new trilateral arms control to replace the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Washington could win a new arms race if necessary. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said.

More US spending on nuclear weapons won’t force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate and would be fraught with peril. The administration’s desire to pursue a more ambitious arms control agreement is the right goal, but it can’t be achieved before New START is slated to expire next February. A new quantitative arms race that could follow the collapse of New START would further undermine stability between the United States and Russia, the health of the global nonproliferation regime, and the US military’s emphasis on competition with China.

Our new post-pandemic reality should make it all the more obvious that the current modernization plans need to be reconsidered in a way that eliminates the most excessive and destabilizing elements, saves taxpayer dollars for other pressing national and health security needs, and is in sync with a revitalized and realistic strategy to cap and reduce global nuclear stockpiles.

A debate on nuclear weapons policy. In an article published on the Arms Control Association website in March, Shannon Bugos and I criticized the 2021 budget request for nuclear weapons and made the case for a different approach. The critique apparently struck a nerve with supporters of the Trump plans.

In his remarks for the Mitchell Institute event, Miller alleged that our organization is part of a nefarious disarmament cabal and attempted a point-by-point rebuttal of the purported “body of lies” and “dangerous recommendations” contained in our article. He claimed that our critique “comes from a group of people who have never felt the burden of public responsibility and public office in defense of this nation and our allies.” (In reality, nearly half of the Arms Control Association’s 17-member board of directors has served in government in some capacity, including several board members who have served at the Defense Department.)

Miller published an expanded version of his remarks earlier this month in Real Clear Defense.

But a review of what we actually wrote reveals that Miller either did not read our article or deliberately chose to distort its contents. Below I respond to each of his assertions.

The growing costs. Miller’s claim: “The projected cost of the [nuclear] modernization program as a percentage of the defense budget is not growing.”

Response: The projected cost of nuclear weapons, both in actual dollars and as a percentage of the national defense budget, is clearly growing, and doing so more quickly than anticipated.

The Pentagon request for 2021 of $28.9 billion to sustain and modernize the triad of nuclear delivery systems and supporting command and control infrastructure is a large increase above this year’s appropriated level of $24.8 billion. As we noted, the requested amounts are consistent with the projected spending levels for these programs contained in previous budget submissions.

The request for the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration nuclear weapons program, however, is far larger than anticipated. The submission calls for $15.6 billion, an astonishing increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal 2020 appropriation, and $2.8 billion more than the projection for 2021 contained in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. Over the next five years, the National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to request over $81 billion for weapons activities, a nearly 24 percent increase over what it planned to seek over the same period as of last year.

Miller, echoing arguments often made by Pentagon officials, claims that even at its projected peak in 2029, spending on nuclear weapons will consume no more than 6 to 7 percent of total Pentagon spending. But this is misleading, unless you think a credible deterrent can be maintained without having actual warheads.

The 6 to 7 percent figure doesn’t include spending at the National Nuclear Security Administration. When that is included, nuclear weapons already account for 6 percent of the total 2021 national defense budget request and will rise to 7 percent by 2024. Given the rate at which that agency’s budget is exploding, probable future cost overruns in the delivery system modernization programs, and the likelihood of flat overall defense budgets (at best) for the foreseeable future, it is conceivable that spending on nuclear weapons could approach 10 percent of national defense spending by the late 2020s.

Miller can claim that the growing modernization bill is worth the price. But he can’t claim that the price tag isn’t growing.

A bigger stockpile. Miller’s claim: “You can search the 2018 [Nuclear Posture Review] from cover to cover without finding any policy which supports expanding the US nuclear warhead stockpile.”

Response: It is true that the Trump administration is not currently planning to grow the size of the arsenal. But we never claimed otherwise. Instead, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review contains several proposed initiatives that support preparing the United States to grow the size of the stockpile in the event of a future decision to do so. Examples include: providing “the enduring capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030”; exploring “approaches for rapid [warhead] prototyping”; assessing “the potential for retired warheads and components to augment the future hedge stockpile”; and reducing “the time required to design, develop, and initially produce a warhead, from a decision to enter full-scale development.”

According to Madelyn Creedon, former deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration during the Obama administration, the Nuclear Posture Review “lays out a long-term plan to prepare the United States to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons and to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. In short, prepare for a new arms race.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s needs. Miller’s claim: “There should be no cause for uncertainty about the crying need for increased funding for [the National Nuclear Security Administration].”

Response: For 2021, the National Nuclear Security Administration has requested a large unplanned increase, totaling $15.6 billion for weapons activities. To many, such an increase was surprising: The agency said only last year that its 2020 budget plan was “fully consistent” with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and “affordable and executable.” Under that proposal, the agency did not plan to request more than $15 billion for weapons activities until 2030!

So, what changed? Lisa Gordon Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, was asked to explain the rationale for such a large unplanned increase at a Congressional hearing in March, but her attempt at an answer hardly cleared up the situation. Perhaps there is a clearer explanation for why the agency so badly misjudged its funding needs for 2021, but if so the agency has yet to provide it.

Plutonium pit production. Miller’s claim: “The comment that building 80 pits per year is unprecedented just doesn’t even work within their own circles.”

Response: At no point did we claim that the National Nuclear Security Administration’s effort to build at least 80 pits per year is unprecedented. What we actually wrote, citing an Institute for Defense Analyses report published last year, is that there is “no historical precedent” for the agency’s plan to go from the current production level of zero pits per year to 80 pits per year by 2030. The Institute for Defense Analyses report could not be clearer: “No available option can be expected to provide 80 pits per year by 2030.”

The right size for the arsenal. Miller’s claim: “It’s also absurd in the extreme … to argue that the size of the current arsenal is more than is required for deterrence.”

Response: It’s not at all absurd to argue that the size of the current US nuclear arsenal is more than is required for deterrence of adversaries and assurance of allies.

In 2013, the Obama administration determined that deterrence requirements could be met with one-third fewer deployed New START-accountable strategic nuclear forces. Yet Obama did not immediately reduce the size of America’s nuclear force, despite concluding that deterrence could be achieved by even a unilateral reduction.

Miller is of course free to argue that further reductions in the arsenal should only occur bilaterally with Russia (or trilaterally with Russia and China) or that the current security environment is such that further reductions aren’t advisable. But in that case the burden of proof is on him to explain the logic that presumes Moscow and Beijing would not be deterred by 1,000 nuclear warheads deployed on hundreds of delivery systems but are deterred by the 1,550 warheads deployed today.

The burden is also on him to explain why the current modernization plans should be funded next year at the expense of the Navy’s conventional shipbuilding account, defense environmental cleanup, and the Cooperative Threat Reduction program—and likely at the expense of similar such cuts in future years. A Virginia class submarine would seem to be far more relevant to great power competition with China than a one-year increase in funds for an agency that said last year it didn’t need those funds and is unlikely to be able to spend them.

Nuclear war fighting. Miller’s claim: “There is that old canard, the ever-popular bloody flag that US policy is based on nuclear war fighting, not on deterrence.”

Response: In our article and elsewhere we advocate for a nuclear strategy that deemphasizes nuclear war fighting by opposing the Trump administration’s proposal to double the number of low-yield nuclear options in the US nuclear arsenal. Miller and other supporters of expanding the number of such options claim that doing so would strengthen deterrence and raise the nuclear threshold.

But the purported deterrent value of additional low-yield options is premised on the concern that adversaries might think the United States would be self-deterred from a more difficult to use higher-yield response. Indeed, Pentagon officials repeatedly argue that policy makers cannot simply assume that a possible nuclear conflict will inevitably escalate to massive nuclear use. They assert that the United States must plan and prepare to be able to prevail in a limited nuclear conflict.

While we do not advocate for the elimination of low-yield weapons from the US nuclear arsenal, we reject the notion that heightening their role is necessary or stabilizing. Placing greater emphasis on low-yield options risks spawning more planning for their use and belief, including by our adversaries, that such use can be controlled, thereby risking a lowering of the threshold for nuclear use.

The future nuclear submarine fleet. Miller’s claim: “The idea that the size of the Columbia class … should be cut, betrays either complete dishonesty, and there’s a lot of that in their pitch, or total ignorance of industrial reality. Cutting boats 11 and 12 and possibly 13 and 14 won’t solve the fiscal problem the [Arms Control Association] has raised with regard to coronavirus.”

Response: At no point have we ever claimed that eliminating two to four submarines from the planned Columbia class purchase would solve the fiscal challenges facing the Pentagon. In fact, we clearly stated in our article that “pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending.”

What we argue is that changes to the nuclear replacement effort, including the Columbia class program, could make the effort easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise, choices that are likely to get even harder amid constrained defense budgets. According to the Congressional Budget Office, eliminating two to four boats at the back end of the planned 12-boat Columbia class purchase would save during the 2030s between $17 and $36 billion in fiscal year 2017 dollars. Buying two additional boats as suggested by Miller would cost an additional $16 billion.

Land-based forces. Miller’s claim: “The idea of extending the Minuteman [III] force has been studied and studied and studied. You just can’t do this safely.”

Response: We disagree that it is not possible to further extend the life of the Minuteman III, as explained in detail in an article in War on the Rocks. A 2014 Air Force study and a 2014 RAND Corporation study both concluded that extending the life of the Minuteman III would be possible. The latter suggested that delaying the development of a new missile by 20 years could save nearly $40 billion dollars through the mid-2030s.

Air-launched cruise missiles. Miller’s claim: “The absurd notion … that nuclear tipped cruise missiles are uniquely destabilizing is a notion unique to American disarmers.… Abandoning the [Long Range Stand Off weapon] will also condemn the B-21 to fly directly into advanced enemy defenses in the decades to come.”

Response: We also disagree with Miller about the case for building a new fleet of nuclear air-launched cruise missiles via the Long Range Stand Off program.

Concerns about the escalation risks associated with weapons systems that have both conventional and nuclear variants is hardly a concern unique to American disarmers. As Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, former commander of US European Command, warned in 2017: “One of the things that you see that is disturbing is the fact that [the Russians] are using similar weapon systems that can either be conventional or nuclear, which then makes it difficult for us to clearly understand what they have employed.”

Miller worries that attempting to drop a nuclear gravity bomb (the B61-12) over a heavily defended target is too risky and might not succeed. But if the Air Force believes the stealth capabilities of the B-21 (which is still under development) could be compromised soon after it is deployed, then it is reasonable to question the service’s strategy for buying the bomber and retaining nuclear gravity bombs in the first place. For its part, US Strategic Command does not appear concerned about the long-term survivability of the B-21. As Gen. Hyten told Congress in July 2017, “It’s not the survivability of the bombers, it’s the ability of the bombers to access targets.” By this Hyten meant that while bombers armed with nuclear gravity bombs can only attack one target at a time, the Long Range Stand Off weapon provides each bomber the ability to attack multiple targets at one time.

It is not surprising that military planners would want many different ways of attacking a target. But the weapons associated with the other two legs of the nuclear triad–the sea- and land-based forces–can also penetrate air defenses and strike targets anywhere on the planet with high confidence.

New warheads. Miller’s claim: “Calling for a halt to upgraded US ballistic missile warheads and abandoning the ability to build new nuclear pits reveals a gross ignorance.”

Response: We did not call for the United States to abandon this ability. On the contrary, we suggested that the National Nuclear Security Administration aim for a less ambitious pit production capacity of 30 to 50 pits per year by 2035. So long as the United States remains a nuclear-armed state, it needs and should have the ability to produce plutonium cores for nuclear warhead refurbishment. But the current goal of producing 80 pits per year by 2030 is almost certainly unachievable. And it is unnecessary. As American University’s Sharon Weiner has noted, “assessing the underlying assumptions makes clear there are credible alternatives to the scale and planned start date for pit production.”

The need for increased pit production could be reduced by pursuing less technically ambitious warhead life extension programs. For example, a near-term driver of establishing a production capacity of 80 pits annually is to support the replacement of the W78 warhead with the new W87-1. But there are alternatives that would not require a new pit for the W87-1, or at least not as many new pits as currently planned. These alternatives include a smaller intercontinental ballistic missile force, a less ambitious upgrade for the W78, or storing or retiring the W78 and relying on just one warhead for the land-based missile force.

In addition, there is no need to accelerate the development of a newly-designed submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, known as the W93, as proposed in the fiscal 2021 budget request. The existing W76-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead just completed a major life extension program that prolonged its service life until at least 2040. The existing W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, which is the youngest warhead in the stockpile, is undergoing a significant upgrade and is not expected to require further refurbishment until at least the late 2030s. It is also highly unlikely that the National Nuclear Security Administration will be able to support three major submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead modernization programs in the 2030s.

Modernization as leverage. Miller’s claim: “Finally, it must be noted that the disarmament community’s call to reduce the US nuclear modernization program paradoxically jeopardizes the achievement of one of the community’s highest priority goals: achieving a new arms control treaty with Russia and potentially also with China.”

Response: The notion that changes to the modernization program would undermine America’s ability to bring Russia and China to the negotiating table is unconvincing. First, even if the modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce any new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest. Second, there is little evidence to suggest that the Obama administration’s support for an extensive modernization program provided the administration with leverage during its second term to convince Moscow to join talks on nuclear reductions below New START. Third, Moscow has identified constraints on US non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts. Fourth, the United States has long had a superior nuclear arsenal to China, but China has refused to participate in arms control.

In a democracy, national defense and nuclear policy plans, options, and trade-offs warrant scrutiny. We welcome serious debate; not distortions about our analysis and recommendations.


Read the original article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Trump’s Withdrawal From the Open Skies Treaty Is Reckless and Self-Defeating

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Originally published in World Politics Review, June 1, 2020.

President Donald Trump's recent decision to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which has helped keep the post-Cold War peace, raises the long-term risk of armed conflict in Europe. While unfortunate, abandoning this 34-nation confidence-building measure is consistent with Trump's years-long policy of confidence-demolition.

First proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 and negotiated under the George H.W. Bush administration, Open Skies allows signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation aircraft over one another's territory. This helps build a measure of transparency and trust regarding each countries' military forces and activities, thereby enhancing stability and reducing the risk of conflict.

Under the terms of the treaty, every detail of each flight is agreed to ahead of time by both the surveilling and the surveilled party, from the flight plan to the plane's airframe to the type of camera. These flights allow short-notice coverage of territory that is not readily photographed by satellites, which cannot be immediately shifted from fixed orbits and which cannot penetrate cloud cover optically.

No treaty adherent has benefited more from its transparency than the United States, which together with its allies overflies Russia far more often than Russia can overfly NATO countries.

The administration's May 22 notification that it will formally leave the treaty in November is fundamentally at odds with the interests of the US and its allies. In response to Trump's decision, 10 European nations, including prominent NATO allies like France and Germany, issued a statement expressing "regret" and said they will continue to implement the treaty, which "remains functioning and useful."

The administration is correct that Russia has violated the treaty by restricting overflight of certain areas, namely the Kaliningrad exclave and Russia's borders with the contested regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, which only Moscow recognizes as independent states. Those violations, while they must be addressed, do not negate the fundamental value of the treaty and certainly do not justify withdrawal.

As some members of Congress have pointed out, the notification of withdrawal is also illegal. The Open Skies Treaty was the brain-child of Republican presidents and enjoyed bipartisan support, so Congress last year included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act—which Trump himself signed—requiring the administration give 120 days' notice before announcing intent to withdraw from the treaty. The deliberate decision to ignore this requirement is yet another sign of the Trump administration's willingness to flout congressional authority.

Even setting questions of legality aside, the substance of the announcement is internally inconsistent.

The administration simultaneously argued that the treaty is not useful because Open Skies aircraft can't detect anything that is not already visible from satellites, but also that Russian planes were vacuuming up valuable information about nonmilitary infrastructure in the US. It argued that Russia's activities were inconsistent with the "spirit"—not the letter—of the treaty, while ignoring the fact that the US and its NATO allies have collected similar information in more than 500 flights over Russian territory since the treaty came into force.

Exiting the treaty will further isolate Washington from its NATO allies, all of whom urged the Trump administration to remain. Indeed, the decision seems intended to reinforce the message Trump has been sending to NATO throughout his presidency: that the 70-year-old alliance cannot rely on the United States.

NATO members that possess less advanced intelligence capabilities than the US have placed great value on the mandatory sharing among all Open Skies signatories of the images collected from surveillance flights. No NATO ally is likely to join the US in withdrawing.

There may be little immediate effect from the US withdrawal. In fact, there were no Open Skies flights conducted at all in 2018, yet this did not provoke any military disaster. Still, in the long run, withdrawing from the treaty will undoubtedly damage the national security of the US as well as its allies and partners in Europe.

The treaty's value has been demonstrated repeatedly during moments of crisis, as when Open Skies flights observed a massive Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine in 2014. The sharing of such images, unlike those obtained by satellites, is immediate, and in this case may have deterred a more open Russian invasion of Ukraine. The next time crisis strikes, such as heightened tensions on Russia's borders with Georgia or Ukraine, NATO will not be able to mobilize an overflight as rapidly as it could with advanced US aircraft.

All the national security benefits of withdrawing from the treaty will accrue to Russia, which will be able to schedule more collection flights over its neighbors and NATO members, including over US bases and military deployments in Europe. And NATO's diminished capability to fly over Russia means Moscow will have greater latitude to deploy forces to its borders.

This will pose a particular risk for Ukraine, which is still in an active conflict with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern regions, and which pleaded with Washington to remain in the treaty. Russia, meanwhile, can continue to argue—with increasing credibility—that it is the United States that is stoking a new arms race.

Of still greater concern is what this decision reveals about the Trump administration's approach to the very concept of arms control.

When Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, I acknowledged that US withdrawal from the treaty could be justified as a result. But I also argued that withdrawing from the INF without any action plan to redress Russia's violations was ill-advised, and only served Moscow's propaganda interests. The same critique applies doubly in this case.

Russia's violations of Open Skies are marginal, preventing coverage of less than 1% of Russian territory, and they are not central to the treaty's objectives, as was the case with Moscow's violations of the INF. In that case, Russia was not just playing games with the rules, but was repeatedly found to be building the very types of missiles whose elimination was the entire point of the INF.

The administration has made clear that it is ready to withdraw from any treaty that is not being implemented fully. Of course, it is also prepared to withdraw from agreements that are being implemented fully, as with the Iran nuclear deal. It appears to believe—despite the complete absence of evidence to support it—that this approach increases pressure on Russia and will force it to compromise on this and related nuclear issues.

The same preference for confrontation over restraint seems also to be the motivating factor for the administration's dithering on the urgent need to renew the New START Treaty, the only remaining treaty that verifiably limits the strategic deployed nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.

Trump says he would prefer a better deal involving not just Russia but also China. But because a complex new agreement simply cannot be concluded before the treaty's expiration in February 2021, many experts suspect Trump's rationale is simply a pretext for leaving New START.

In another sign that Trump's team is prepared to escalate tensions, The Washington Post recently reported that White House officials discussed the potential of resuming US nuclear weapons testing, which would break a moratorium that has been in place since 1992.

A senior official speaking to the Post claimed that by demonstrating the US ability to "rapid test" a nuclear device, it could put pressure on Russia and China in future arms control negotiations. In fact, such a move would instead give a green light to China, Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan to break their own nuclear test moratoriums, which could help them develop new and more dangerous warhead designs. This would unquestionably undermine American and global security, and yet the Trump team considers it a feasible option.

Trump has brought to crucial arms control issues the same approach he has brought to domestic politics, not to mention his personal legal and business issues: petulance, egomania, bullying and short-sightedness. Members of Congress from both parties have an opportunity in the coming days and weeks to take a principled stand, not only in favor of continued Open Skies adherence, but also against reckless tests of nuclear weapons for the purpose of political messaging.

Thomas Countryman is chair of the board of directors at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. He was a career U.S. Foreign Service officer for 35 years until retiring in 2017, having most recently served as acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Read the original article on World Politics Review, June 1, 2020.

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Trump's decision to ditch another treaty with Russia is a reckless own goal

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Originally published in World Politics Review, June 1, 2020.

President Donald Trump's recent decision to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which has helped keep the post-Cold War peace, raises the long-term risk of armed conflict in Europe. While unfortunate, abandoning this 34-nation confidence-building measure is consistent with Trump's years-long policy of confidence-demolition.

First proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955 and negotiated under the George H.W. Bush administration, Open Skies allows signatories, including the United States and Russia, to fly unarmed observation aircraft over one another's territory. This helps build a measure of transparency and trust regarding each countries' military forces and activities, thereby enhancing stability and reducing the risk of conflict.

Under the terms of the treaty, every detail of each flight is agreed to ahead of time by both the surveilling and the surveilled party, from the flight plan to the plane's airframe to the type of camera. These flights allow short-notice coverage of territory that is not readily photographed by satellites, which cannot be immediately shifted from fixed orbits and which cannot penetrate cloud cover optically.

No treaty adherent has benefited more from its transparency than the United States, which together with its allies overflies Russia far more often than Russia can overfly NATO countries.

The administration's May 22 notification that it will formally leave the treaty in November is fundamentally at odds with the interests of the US and its allies. In response to Trump's decision, 10 European nations, including prominent NATO allies like France and Germany, issued a statement expressing "regret" and said they will continue to implement the treaty, which "remains functioning and useful."

The administration is correct that Russia has violated the treaty by restricting overflight of certain areas, namely the Kaliningrad exclave and Russia's borders with the contested regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, which only Moscow recognizes as independent states. Those violations, while they must be addressed, do not negate the fundamental value of the treaty and certainly do not justify withdrawal.

As some members of Congress have pointed out, the notification of withdrawal is also illegal. The Open Skies Treaty was the brain-child of Republican presidents and enjoyed bipartisan support, so Congress last year included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act — which Trump himself signed — requiring the administration give 120 days' notice before announcing intent to withdraw from the treaty. The deliberate decision to ignore this requirement is yet another sign of the Trump administration's willingness to flout congressional authority.

Even setting questions of legality aside, the substance of the announcement is internally inconsistent.

The administration simultaneously argued that the treaty is not useful because Open Skies aircraft can't detect anything that is not already visible from satellites, but also that Russian planes were vacuuming up valuable information about nonmilitary infrastructure in the US. It argued that Russia's activities were inconsistent with the "spirit" — not the letter — of the treaty, while ignoring the fact that the US and its NATO allies have collected similar information in more than 500 flights over Russian territory since the treaty came into force.

Exiting the treaty will further isolate Washington from its NATO allies, all of whom urged the Trump administration to remain. Indeed, the decision seems intended to reinforce the message Trump has been sending to NATO throughout his presidency: that the 70-year-old alliance cannot rely on the United States.

NATO members that possess less advanced intelligence capabilities than the US have placed great value on the mandatory sharing among all Open Skies signatories of the images collected from surveillance flights. No NATO ally is likely to join the US in withdrawing.

There may be little immediate effect from the US withdrawal. In fact, there were no Open Skies flights conducted at all in 2018, yet this did not provoke any military disaster. Still, in the long run, withdrawing from the treaty will undoubtedly damage the national security of the US as well as its allies and partners in Europe.

The treaty's value has been demonstrated repeatedly during moments of crisis, as when Open Skies flights observed a massive Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine in 2014. The sharing of such images, unlike those obtained by satellites, is immediate, and in this case may have deterred a more open Russian invasion of Ukraine. The next time crisis strikes, such as heightened tensions on Russia's borders with Georgia or Ukraine, NATO will not be able to mobilize an overflight as rapidly as it could with advanced US aircraft.

All the national security benefits of withdrawing from the treaty will accrue to Russia, which will be able to schedule more collection flights over its neighbors and NATO members, including over US bases and military deployments in Europe. And NATO's diminished capability to fly over Russia means Moscow will have greater latitude to deploy forces to its borders.

This will pose a particular risk for Ukraine, which is still in an active conflict with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern regions, and which pleaded with Washington to remain in the treaty. Russia, meanwhile, can continue to argue — with increasing credibility — that it is the United States that is stoking a new arms race.

Of still greater concern is what this decision reveals about the Trump administration's approach to the very concept of arms control.

When Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, I acknowledged that US withdrawal from the treaty could be justified as a result. But I also argued that withdrawing from the INF without any action plan to redress Russia's violations was ill-advised, and only served Moscow's propaganda interests. The same critique applies doubly in this case.

Russia's violations of Open Skies are marginal, preventing coverage of less than 1% of Russian territory, and they are not central to the treaty's objectives, as was the case with Moscow's violations of the INF. In that case, Russia was not just playing games with the rules, but was repeatedly found to be building the very types of missiles whose elimination was the entire point of the INF.

The administration has made clear that it is ready to withdraw from any treaty that is not being implemented fully. Of course, it is also prepared to withdraw from agreements that are being implemented fully, as with the Iran nuclear deal. It appears to believe — despite the complete absence of evidence to support it — that this approach increases pressure on Russia and will force it to compromise on this and related nuclear issues.

The same preference for confrontation over restraint seems also to be the motivating factor for the administration's dithering on the urgent need to renew the New START Treaty, the only remaining treaty that verifiably limits the strategic deployed nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.

Trump says he would prefer a better deal involving not just Russia but also China. But because a complex new agreement simply cannot be concluded before the treaty's expiration in February 2021, many experts suspect Trump's rationale is simply a pretext for leaving New START.

In another sign that Trump's team is prepared to escalate tensions, The Washington Post recently reported that White House officials discussed the potential of resuming US nuclear weapons testing, which would break a moratorium that has been in place since 1992.

A senior official speaking to the Post claimed that by demonstrating the US ability to "rapid test" a nuclear device, it could put pressure on Russia and China in future arms control negotiations. In fact, such a move would instead give a green light to China, Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan to break their own nuclear test moratoriums, which could help them develop new and more dangerous warhead designs. This would unquestionably undermine American and global security, and yet the Trump team considers it a feasible option.

Trump has brought to crucial arms control issues the same approach he has brought to domestic politics, not to mention his personal legal and business issues: petulance, egomania, bullying and short-sightedness. Members of Congress from both parties have an opportunity in the coming days and weeks to take a principled stand, not only in favor of continued Open Skies adherence, but also against reckless tests of nuclear weapons for the purpose of political messaging.

Thomas Countryman is chair of the board of directors at the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. He was a career U.S. Foreign Service officer for 35 years until retiring in 2017, having most recently served as acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Read the original article on World Politics Review, June 1, 2020.

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