“Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.”

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ABC News
January 1, 2005
September 2016
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Law of War Considerations In Fielding Nuclear Forces

September 2016

By Justin Anderson

The status of nuclear weapons within international law was a subject of intense debate during last fall’s UN General Assembly First Committee session. State supporters of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons pressed for resolutions asserting the illegality of nuclear weapons and sought to build support for the near-term negotiation of a global ban on nuclear arsenals.

They were strongly opposed by the five states permitted to possess nuclear weapons under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).1

At Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, U.S. Navy Admiral. Cecil D. Haney (right), U.S. Strategic Command commander, and other command members monitor a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on May 20, 2015. [Photo credit: Jim Lamar/U.S. Strategic Command]Such clashes are likely to continue and prove intractable, shedding more heat than light on the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces. The five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) will continue to view nuclear deterrence as vital to the security of themselves and key allies for the foreseeable future. Inconclusive debates in international forums over the general legality of nuclear weapons obscure a more important question at a time when the NPT nuclear-weapon states are overhauling their nuclear forces and, in the cases of Russia and China, upgrading and diversifying: for those states permitted to possess nuclear weapons, how does the law of war apply to their development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces? 

This article will discuss how core principles of the law of war,2 which represents the specific body of law that is lex specialis to the conduct of armed conflict, including the means and methods used to wage war, can apply to or be integrated with the decision-making processes of these five states with regard to their development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces.3 It provides guidelines and suggestions rather than specific “rulings” or prescriptions because the application and implementation of the law of war is best carried out through a series of assessments that evaluate weapons, their delivery means, and the rationale for their potential employment.4 It is informed by legal interpretations and policy positions associated with the United States but offered in hopes of catalyzing a broader discussion on how the law of war, which is intended to reduce the suffering and destruction of all types of conflicts and to facilitate the “restoration of peace,”5 applies to all states that elect to field nuclear forces.

Law of War Principles

Many participants in debates on the legality of nuclear weapons have discussed them as different and separate from other types of weapons, focusing on their destructive power. Yet for the NPT nuclear-weapon states, these weapons and the forces that operate them are not separate from international law, including the law of war. The “Department of Defense Law of War Manual” states this succinctly and directly: “The law of war governs the use of nuclear weapons, just as it governs the use of conventional weapons.”6

As such, the core principles of the law of war apply to the development, fielding, and deployment of nuclear forces. The manual identifies three “interdependent” core principles within the law of war: military necessity, humanity, and honor. Humanity itself encompasses three key principles: distinction, proportionality, and the prohibition against unnecessary suffering. This article seeks to address several of these principles as they relate to leadership decision-making on nuclear strategy, posture, and potential employment of nuclear weapons, to the development of nuclear delivery systems and weapons, and to the military assessment process known as weaponeering. 

The principle of military necessity states that, in times of war, the use of force is acceptable and justified in order to defeat an opponent. It qualifies, however, that the use of force is not unlimited; the manner in which it is employed should seek to bring about the end of a conflict as quickly as possible and with the least amount of destruction necessary. Francis Lieber, whose 1863 law of war instructions to the Union Army became the foundational document for many later writings and guidance documents on the topic, described the principle: “Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war…. [Yet,] military necessity does not admit of cruelty…. It does not admit of the use of poison in any way, nor of the wanton devastation of a district…and, in general, military necessity does not include any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.”7

In weighing the legitimate use of force in wartime and the imperative of winning “quickly and efficiently” against the imperative of fighting in a manner that is not “cruel” or “wanton” or makes a future peace impossible, military necessity is often linked with the principle of proportionality.8 The latter principle asserts that the use of military force should not be “unreasonable or excessive.”9 In terms of application, proportionality asks leaders and war-fighters to consider the first- and second-order effects, including the potential effects on civilians, of proposed military actions. If these outweigh the benefits of the suggested action—they do little to advance the cause of victory and could result in significant civilian casualties and damage to civilian property—they should be rejected. 

One way to think about the relationship between the principles of military necessity and proportionality is to consider the example of an adversary military base that is important to their continued operations against you or that houses forces that can cause you grievous harm. This base is a legitimate target and can be totally destroyed, but proportionality considerations may mitigate or change how a leader or commander plans to destroy this facility and what means or methods are used. If a range of means are available, proportionality considerations will lead to the election of an option that is less likely to cause collateral damage. 

Military necessity and proportionality are critically important principles for decision-making by national leaders and their military advisers, as they survey the entirety of a conflict and promulgate the strategies and orders whereby all elements of national power are brought to bear on an adversary. The two principles require leaders to make decisions weighing the imperative of winning the war and directing the campaigns or major operations required to do so against the risks of causing collateral damage and prolonging conflict. The difficulty of obtaining, processing, and communicating accurate information due to the “fog of war” is an acknowledged limitation to effectively integrating consideration of these principles into decision-making processes at the highest levels.10

Acknowledging and attempting to address the tension between military necessity and proportionality are important for all potential uses of force, but they are particularly critical when it comes to the possible employment of nuclear force. What types of information and processes can ensure a measured evaluation of courses of action that includes consideration of these law of war principles? 

First, an assessment factoring in military necessity and proportionality should not begin during a nuclear crisis or conflict. The stress of the situation will likely result in a focus on quickly addressing the most immediate or pressing threats at hand, with little to no time or attention available to consider the potential second-order effects or broader implications of decisions made in the breach. Regardless of how an NPT nuclear-weapon state chooses to integrate law of war considerations into its national leadership decision-making calculus, this is an argument in favor of undertaking this integration in peacetime, well before any situation arises where nuclear employment may need to be considered. 

Second, when taken together, the principles of military necessity and proportionality frame a limited, discrete space for considering potential nuclear weapons employment. In a geopolitical environment where the NPT nuclear-weapon states face significant threats, including those from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is possible to envisage scenarios where the circumstances are dire and the demands of military necessity could lead to the consideration of employing nuclear force to destroy rapidly and totally, if necessary, these threats. Yet, the principle’s dual requirement to consider whether the means employed make the return to peace difficult or impossible, buttressed by the admonishment to minimize collateral damage to the extent possible, raise the bar for nuclear employment very high. 

Informed Choices

Determining the parameters of this space and the height of this bar is not a single, stand-alone assessment. It requires a series of nested, interrelated assessments that provide information allowing decision-makers to make informed choices that take into account military necessity and proportionality. These assessments should be undertaken shortly after a new leader begins their term in office, should draw on the experience and expertise of the state’s national security community, and should be supplied to the leader and their most senior advisers. 

Missileers train in the missile procedures trainer at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, home to 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles on January 21, 2008. It is one of three U.S. Air Force bases that maintain and operate Minuteman III ICBMs. [Photo credit: John Turner/U.S. Air Force]These assessments would contribute to the development of a nuclear strategy, and their purpose would be wider than the law of war. They would also, however, provide information vital to an evaluation weighing the demands of military necessity against the limitations of proportionality. One set of assessments would focus on the military threats, such as weapons of mass destruction, which might justify consideration of nuclear strikes. This analysis would provide critical context with regard to military necessity. In a geopolitical environment where the NPT nuclear-weapon states face these types of threats, it is possible to envisage scenarios in which circumstances could lead to the consideration of employing nuclear strikes to destroy an adversary’s WMD-equipped forces (or associated command and control infrastructure) in order to prevent or halt a devastating attack against themselves or their allies. Yet, the parameters of these major threats—How immediate might they be employed? How potentially lethal?—should be assessed in detail.

Another set of assessments should focus on the first- and second-order effects of each nuclear weapon within the arsenal and offer a comparison of these effects against those of the state’s most powerful conventional weapons. Detailed descriptions of the effects of nuclear detonations against different types of targets will likely impress on decision-makers the weighty importance of all decisions involving potential nuclear employment (histories and memoirs, for example, demonstrate this to be the case with regard to U.S. presidents who received briefings on nuclear war plans during the Cold War).11

It is important to emphasize, however, that these assessments will also reveal the enormous difference, in orders of magnitude, between megaton, kiloton, and subkiloton weapons. They will also reveal an enormous difference between “small” nuclear weapons and whatever weapon represents the arsenal’s largest conventional munition. An additional, related set of assessments should focus on when and where the weapon detonates, such as the height of burst of a potential nuclear strike and the impact of shifting the aimpoint, i.e., whether hitting the center or the corner of an adversary’s military base. Here too, the assessments will demonstrate that the effects of strikes will vary dramatically depending on variables such as whether a weapon is detonated on the ground, a short distance from the earth, or high in the atmosphere. Similarly, effects will differ based on where a target is hit. 

These various types of effects assessment are important to informing considerations of proportionality, communicating the incredible power of nuclear munitions and the various effects of nuclear detonations such as heat, blast, and radiation. Yet, they will also demonstrate that the range of these effects is radically different based on the size and type of nuclear weapon employed and when and where it is detonated. In addition, they will elucidate the massive gap between the destructive power of nuclear and conventional munitions. These differences could figure significantly within the cost-benefit comparison between military necessity and proportionality should a target or targets be identified that must be destroyed in order to secure victory, prevent a devastating attack, or both.12

Furthermore, these assessments should consider how the adversary may react, addressing important questions regarding conflict escalation and war termination. These assessments will grapple with human psychology, strategic culture, and other issues that differ from the physics and engineering calculations behind assessments of the effects of nuclear detonations. In addition to being critical to nuclear strategy development, consideration of these factors is important to fully addressing the requirements of military necessity, which allows the use of force against legitimate strategic or tactical objectives but does not permit “any act of hostility which makes the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.” 

These considerations could serve to illustrate that the law of war does not always provide definitive answers with regard to strategic dilemmas. A national military or nuclear command headquarters, for example, may be a legitimate target in wartime, but would destroying it actually result in conflict escalation, up to and including nuclear employment, either because an adversary is now bent on revenge, loses command and control over its own forces, or both? The necessary tension inherent to the principle of military necessity is meant to prompt leaders and commanders wherever possible to thoroughly assess their options and consider likely outcomes. Its evaluative criteria, however, may help define decisions regarding nuclear forces—where the requirements of defending your population or forces may be paramount at the same time that uncertainty regarding adversary intentions and capacity for escalation may be acute—without facilitating them, even if the desire to adhere to the law is sincere. 

The law of war permits the use of force, including massive force, to achieve victory, but also emphasizes that attempting to achieve victory at any cost, with no thought for the consequences to civilians, is unlawful and harms the prospects of achieving a lasting peace. Yet, the challenge in correctly calibrating the use of force, particularly when confronted with adversaries capable of causing massive harm, is significant, acute, and sometimes unappreciated by advocates and analysts of international law. 

The assessments described above are important to a government’s development of its nuclear posture and its declaratory policy—that is, when, where, and how it will employ nuclear force. In addition to addressing questions of strategy and policy, they provide information that allows leaders to integrate law of war considerations into critical decisions and guidance documents. 

Principle of Distinction

The principle of distinction requires that the use of force be directed against military targets and not civilians or civilian objects, such as civilian buildings; as described by Lieber, “the unarmed citizen is to be spared in person, property, and honor as much as the exigencies of war will admit.”13 As a general rule, the more powerful and destructive the weapon, the greater the care and caution in ensuring that its design and form of employment permit it to be employed in accordance with this principle. 

Some activists and commentators assert that nuclear weapons can never be employed in a manner that does not violate the principle of discrimination, often pointing to radioactive fallout as an uncontrollable effect of nuclear detonations that will sicken and kill civilians far from the original target. These assertions often appear to assume that all nuclear weapons and detonations are alike in terms of their effects. As discussed above, however, how a weapon is employed can significantly change its effects. So too does its design and the design of its delivery means. This places significant weight across the spectrum of decisions associated with the development, fielding, and deployment of a nuclear force, with questions regarding discrimination first applied during the initial research and design stage of delivery systems and munitions.

A critical decision relevant to a weapon’s design is its yield. In its commission and design of nuclear munitions, an NPT nuclear-weapon state should carefully assess how many high-yield weapons it requires because a larger weapon is more likely to raise issues with regard to proportionality. This is also the point in time to consider whether to invest in weapons that have a variable yield, sometimes colloquially referenced as “dial-a-yield,” in order to provide greater flexibility in the event of actual employment. In short, with regard to the weapon itself, an important means of calibrating its effects can begin with design decisions.

Discrimination of effects is only possible if the delivery of the munition is itself discriminate. So, it is critically important for an NPT nuclear-weapon state to invest in the technologies—some organic to the delivery system, some resident within supporting systems—to ensure that a delivery system directly strikes its intended aimpoint and does not go astray. In the contemporary era, this almost certainly demands secure and accurate navigational guidance provided by space systems, for example. The degree of fidelity required to ensure that a nuclear-capable delivery system is discriminate is greater than that required for less destructive conventional systems. 

The above factors can help an NPT nuclear-weapon state field delivery systems and bombs or warheads that have the potential to be discriminate.14 Just as important, however, is how these delivery systems are used and how these weapons might be employed in a potential armed conflict. This should lead to law of war considerations being integrated into a state’s weaponeering processes. Weaponeering is defined by the U.S. Air Force as “the process of determining the quantity of a specific type of lethal or nonlethal means required to create a desired effect on a given target.”15 It refers to the integration of a series of evaluations by specially trained military personnel that considers factors such as the effects of different types of weapons and various types of strikes, including the question of how many weapons are necessary, whether delivered singly, in groups, or in sequence, to neutralize or destroy a target. 

The assessments discussed in the preceding section with regard to the size of a weapon’s yield and the location of the detonation are also included as part of weaponeering. Other topics taken into account include weather, terrain, and a target’s passive defenses, such as whether it is hardened and deeply buried. All of the above can have a significant impact on the effects of any type of weapon, including nuclear weapons. Weaponeering is a process and a skill set, requiring time and investment in order to ensure it is effective and can fully integrate law of war considerations.16

A Sandia National Laboratories engineer prepares for an impact test of hardware in the nose assembly of a mock B61-12 nuclear bomb on January 28, 2015 in New Mexico. The new guided version of the B61 gravity bomb, scheduled for production between 2020 to 2024, is intended to strike targets more accurately and is reported to have a variable explosive yield that could reduce the radioactive fallout. [Photo credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories]Weapons design and weaponeering are highly technical and specialized fields. Particularly during a period of time when an arsenal is being overhauled, upgraded, and perhaps expanded, ensuring that these processes integrate law of war considerations is critically important. They also require a robust interaction or feedback loop with the assessments that inform decision-makers discussed above; the degree to which a weapons designer can make a weapons system accurate, for example, should impact decision-maker views on whether these systems can be used in a discriminate and proportional way. 

In turn, decision-makers should provide guidance for how investments are made that, in addition to strategic considerations, result in the development of an arsenal that can implement and adhere to the law of war. A weapon may appear to fail tests of discrimination and proportionality, for example, until it can be matched with a delivery system whose accuracy improves on its predecessors (a high degree of certainty in reaching a target, for example, can also lead to the use of a smaller munition). In addition, weapons may be redesigned, replaced, or retired because their yield or other aspects of their design may raise discrimination and proportionality issues in light of changes to a potential adversary’s force that alter calculations of military necessity. Moreover, as noted above, a significant gulf exists between the destructive power of conventional and nuclear weapons; greater investment in high-end conventional capabilities may allow future non-nuclear munitions to fulfill roles and missions currently assigned to nuclear forces. 

Again, these points do not necessarily rule out the potential employment of nuclear weapons because the need to have a type of force capable of rapidly and totally destroying existential threats may be high. They are arguments, however, in favor of taking steps to integrate law of war considerations into the research, development, and acquisition phases for nuclear-capable delivery systems and nuclear weapons and into the education, training, and processes required to develop effective weaponeering cells within the military services. 

Principle of Honor

The principle of honor is a foundational concept that binds together all individuals who take up the profession of arms. As the Law of War Manual notes, “Opposing military forces should respect one another outside of the fighting because they share a profession and they fight one another on behalf of their respective States and not out of personal hostility.”17

This respect influences the treatment of wounded or captured combatants and, more broadly, the conduct of war, whereby military personnel do not demonize their opponents, viewing and treating them as professionals. This concept of honor extends to all warfighters, including those tasked with operating nuclear-capable systems and carrying out nuclear missions. 

This suggests that one way in which to “thicken” the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces is to encourage professional interaction between those members of the uniformed militaries of the NPT nuclear-weapon states that are tasked with the unique and weighty responsibility of maintaining nuclear forces and preparing to employ them if called to do so in a future war. Aside from the scientists and engineers that develop nuclear weapons, no other class of professional is so well aware of the effects of different types of nuclear weapons employment and, in turn, is deeply wary of the costs and consequences of any conflict between two nuclear-armed states. 

Increased communication and interaction between these highly specialized forces is not a law of war requirement, but it could bolster the relationship between the law of war and nuclear forces by cementing respectful, professional relationships between these warfighters. The NPT nuclear-weapon states have held an annual conference since 2009 to discuss issues of mutual concern; future conferences could include semiformal sidebar meetings bringing together officers from these five states who have experience in commanding or serving as part of the crew of nuclear-capable delivery systems. 

Litmus Test

Many contemporary commentaries on nuclear weapons and the law of war discuss these weapons within a vacuum absent of any context regarding their development, fielding, or deployment. This can lead to abstract or erroneous analyses that contribute little to understanding or implementation of the law. For the NPT nuclear-weapon states, nuclear weapons are legitimate tools of self-defense and will remain so until such time as all states-parties to the treaty can negotiate a comprehensive disarmament treaty. This does not mean that these weapons or military operations involving these weapons are somehow unregulated. Nuclear weapons and the forces that are “organized, trained and equipped,” in U.S. parlance, to operate them are fully subject to the law of war. This article has offered some thoughts on what this means for these five states with regard to implementation of this body of law. It suggests that this implementation requires integrating consideration of key law of war principles within the broader decision-making processes that develop, establish, and sustain a state’s nuclear strategy, posture, and arsenal, including narrowing and restricting what these forces target and how they might be employed. 

How the NPT nuclear-weapon states conduct this integration with regard to their current nuclear forces and ensure it plays an important role in ongoing processes to upgrade their arsenals may differ, but it represents an important obligation for all five. Moreover, it serves as a litmus test for this body of law as a whole, providing these states with an opportunity to demonstrate that all weapons, including the most powerful, are subject to the law of war. 


1.   July 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion on the “legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons,” which continues to reflect these debates in a number of ways. Although the court expressed skepticism that nuclear weapons could be employed in a way that did not violate the laws of war, it concluded that it could not rule these weapons illegal in every circumstance and stated that the court “cannot lose sight of the fundamental right of every State to survival,” reflecting nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty nuclear-weapon states’ arguments that the existential threat posed by other state’s nuclear weapons justifies fielding their own nuclear forces for the purposes of deterrence. Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, I.C.J. Reports, July 8, 1996, pp. 40-41, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/7495.pdf.  

2.  The law of war is often referenced as the law of armed conflict or international humanitarian law. The latter body of law is not identical to the law of war. As noted by Christopher Greenwood, ICJ judge, “International humanitarian law thus includes most of what used to be known as the laws of war, although strictly speaking some parts of those laws, such as the law of neutrality, are not included since their primary purpose is not humanitarian.” Office of the General Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense, “Department of Defense Law of War Manual,” June 2015, p. 8, http://www.dod.mil/dodgc/images/law_war_manual15.pdf (hereinafter Law of War Manual).

3.  For a discussion of the law of war as lex specialis, see the Law of War Manual’s section 1.3.2. on “The Law of War’s Relationship to Other Bodies of Law.” Ibid.

4.  The term “employment” refers to nuclear forces conducting an operation that concludes with a nuclear detonation. In general, the U.S. armed forces tasked with nuclear deterrence responsibilities, including patrols and other operations that are not nuclear strike operations, will often utilize the term “use” to broadly encompass these and other non-kinetic activities. 

5.  Ibid., p. 15.

6.  Ibid., p. 393.

7.  Avalon Project, “General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code,” 2008, arts. 15-16, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lieber.asp.

8.  Law of War Manual, p. 52.

9.  Ibid., p. 60.

10.  Ibid., p. 56.

11.  David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand (New York: Doubleday, 2009), pp. 39-40.

12.  Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “Taming Shiva: Applying International Law to Nuclear Operations,” The Air Force Law Review 42 (1997): 161-162.

13.  Avalon Project, “General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code,” art. 22.

14.  The U.S. statement on the 1996 ICJ case considering the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons addressed a number of law of war issues, including the principle of distinction: “It has been argued that nuclear weapons are unlawful because they cannot be directed at a military objective. This argument ignores the ability of modern delivery systems to target specific military objectives with nuclear weapons, and the ability of modern weapon designers to tailor the effects of a nuclear weapon to deal with various types of military objectives.” U.S. Department of State, “Letter Dated 20 June 1995 From the Acting Legal Adviser to the Department of State, Together With Written Statement of the Government of the United States of America,” June 20, 1995, pp. 22-23, http://www.icj-cij.org/docket/files/95/8700.pdf.

15.  Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, “Annex 3-60 Targeting: Weaponeering and Allocation,” January 10, 2014, https://doctrine.af.mil/download.jsp?filename=3-60-D26-Target-Wpn-Allocate.pdf.

16.  Law of war considerations are included within U.S. Air Force weaponeering. “The output of weaponeering is a recommendation of [what is] needed to achieve desired effects while avoiding unacceptable collateral damage…. According to [the law of war], incidental damage to civilian objects must not be excessive in relation to the expected military advantage to be gained. Collateral damage criteria were established on this foundational principle.” Ibid.

17.  Law of War Manual, pp. 66-67.

Dr. Justin Anderson is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Many participants in debates on the legality of nuclear weapons discuss them as different and separate from other types of weapons, focusing on their destructive power. Yet, these weapons...

The NPT Review Process: The Need for a More Productive Approach

September 2016

By Robert Einhorn

The current review process of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is unsatisfactory. It produces high drama and intense diplomatic activity, but rarely contributes to the strengthening of the NPT regime. Most NPT parties are frustrated with it. It is time to consider a better way.

Although the next NPT review conference is not until 2020, it is not too soon to discuss ways to remedy some of the shortcomings of the process, given that the treaty itself sets few rules on how such periodic reviews should be conducted. Article VIII.3 of the NPT provides that “[f]ive years after the entry into force of this Treaty, a conference of the Parties to the Treaty shall be held in Geneva, Switzerland, in order to review the operation of this Treaty with a view to assuring that the purposes of the Preamble and the provisions of the Treaty are being realized.” It goes on to say that, at intervals of five years, a majority of the parties can decide to convene further conferences.

A view of the UN General Assembly Hall as Taous Feroukhi of Algeria (on screen), president of the 2015 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, closed the session May 22, 2015. The month-long conference concluded without a consensus on a final document that would have established specific steps to speed nuclear disarmament, advance nonproliferation efforts, and work toward a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. [Photo credit: Eskinder Debebe/UN]That is all the guidance the treaty provides. It does not mandate how the parties should review the operation of the treaty or specify what, if any, written outcome the conference participants should seek to produce. Yet, from the very first review conference in 1975 and at every review conference since, delegates have sought to produce a consensus final document—a document that comprehensively assessed the past record of implementation and recommended means of strengthening the treaty and the broader nonproliferation regime for the future.

From the outset, review conferences were contentious affairs. The parties strongly supported the treaty’s three central goals—promoting nuclear disarmament, preventing nuclear proliferation, and facilitating the peaceful uses of nuclear energy—but they differed on priorities and the means of advancing those goals. At most review conferences, consensus was possible on many, even most, of the issues, but sharp differences often surfaced on other issues.

As a result, a comprehensive, consensus final document did not prove achievable at four of the nine review conferences held to date: 1980, 1990, 2005, and 2015. At the 1995 review conference, referenced as the review and extension conference because of its treaty-mandated role of deciding whether the NPT would continue beyond its initial 25-year duration, the parties could not reach consensus on a comprehensive document reviewing the treaty, but were able to agree on a package of decisions looking toward the future, including the historic decision to extend the treaty indefinitely.1

In the public mind and even in the minds of the governments involved, a review conference resulting in a consensus final document was a success; one without such a result was a failure. Nevertheless, such a “success” was often not really a success, and such a “failure” was often not really a failure.

“Successes” and “Failures”

Consensus final documents sometimes have contained important initiatives that strengthened the nonproliferation regime. The 1985 review conference’s consensus final document, for example, gave impetus to efforts, which culminated in a 1992 decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), to make full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on all nuclear activities a condition of nuclear supply to non-nuclear-weapon states not party to the NPT.2 Yet, consensus was achieved too often not by forging genuine substantive compromises but by finding clever diplomatic formulations that papered over unresolved differences. Thus, the 2000 review conference’s consensus document brought together supporters and opponents of eliminating nuclear weapons with the unobjectionable but nearly tautological formulation that “the total elimination of nuclear weapons is the only absolute guarantee against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.”

Moreover, “consensus” could be misleading. Delegations frequently had objections to provisions included in a consensus text, but decided not to bear the onus of blocking consensus, knowing full well that such provisions could later be ignored, as they frequently were, with impunity. The cost of consensus has often been a watered-down document with little prospect of having a real-world impact after the four-week conference concluded.

On the other hand, the absence of a final consensus document has not meant that tangible progress was not made at a review conference. Recommendations put forward and widely supported at review conferences in which no final document was reached have later become significant elements of the global nonproliferation regime. Anticipating the later development of the IAEA Model Additional Protocol, a proposal at the “failed” 1990 review conference invited the agency to consider new safeguards approaches, including randomized inspections. Following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the 1990 conference was the first review conference to focus heavily on nuclear safety and make it a component of the broader nonproliferation regime, which eventually included the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety.

It is not the review conferences themselves that operationalize and implement the recommendations they make but specialized international bodies such as the IAEA and its board of governors, the NSG, the 1540 Committee, and the Conference on Disarmament as well as national executive and other policymaking authorities. The likelihood of these specialized entities putting review conference recommendations into practice has little to do with whether they were contained in a consensus document. Indeed, much progress in the evolution of the nonproliferation regime, including the widespread adoption of the Additional Protocol, has been made in the absence of consensus among NPT parties.

The Costs of Consensus

Not only is the value of producing a consensus final document overrated, but the costs of trying to achieve such an outcome are great. With nothing agreed unless everything is agreed, the energy of the review conference inevitably gets absorbed in trying to negotiate acceptable language on a small number of the most divisive issues. This has meant countless hours of closed-door, often futile wordsmithing at the expense of what the review conference should be doing: assessing the implementation of the NPT, discussing the impact of current international and technological developments on the nonproliferation regime, and debating proposals for reinforcing and improving it.

It is not just the requirement for consensus that is the problem. It is also the practice of trying to produce a comprehensive document covering every conceivable issue. Obviously, that compounds the difficulty of achieving a consensus; it also results in very lengthy documents, on the order of 20 or more single-spaced pages with upward of 200 paragraphs.3 Invariably, consensus formulations from previous review conference documents are incorporated, usually verbatim and without an appreciation of the particular contexts in which those formulations were adopted.

Therefore, when a review conference “succeeds,” it produces a mind-numbing document that is utterly unintelligible to the public or even to government officials outside the nonproliferation community. It takes a real insider to figure out what is new and important. The media are at the mercy of the spin they receive from governmental briefers. It is no wonder news reporters have fallen into the habit of simply writing that a conference succeeded when it produced a document and failed when it did not.

A Different Kind of Report

NPT parties should try something new in 2020, the 50th anniversary of the treaty. They should decide not to make their goal the achievement of a comprehensive, consensus final document.

The 2020 review conference should still produce a report, but it should be a different kind of report. As in previous review conferences, the first portion of the report should assess the record of NPT implementation to date. Much of it will be factual and uncontroversial and will be expressed as the common view of the parties. Where differences exist on the implementation record, they should be acknowledged and clearly stated.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed U.S. support for the goals of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in his addresses to 2015 NPT review conference on April 27, 2015. At the end of the conference, the United States objected to reaching consensus on a final document, citing the included language on establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. [Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images]The report should also accurately summarize discussions in the preparatory committee meetings and the review conference itself on current international and technological developments that affect the health of the global nonproliferation regime.

A key portion of the report should be forward looking, covering recommendations for strengthening the NPT and the nonproliferation regime in general. Review conference deliberations, including arguments for and against these recommendations, would be summarized in the report. Individual recommendations and proposals enjoying consensus support among the parties would be given pride of place in the report. Those not achieving consensus would be addressed in the report in a separate section. 

Specific recommendations and proposals, whether or not they enjoy consensus, would be appended to the report, together with lists of parties that supported them. There would be no resolutions and no voting, but the lists of parties favoring particular recommendations would indicate how much support they received.

The report would provide a highly informative record of review conference deliberations, but it would not try, as earlier final documents did, to cover every issue. The report and its appendixes would be available to parties as they sought, in the wake of the review conference, to follow up on their recommendations in various international bodies and with national governments. The report would provide a broad menu of concrete approaches on which to draw.

Unlike in the case of a comprehensive, consensus final document, the recommendations in the report would not need to be watered down to gain a consensus or simply omitted because they did not achieve a consensus. Regardless of how much support they attracted, they could find their way into the report, and they could be expressed as their sponsors preferred. Of course, the recommendations and proposals contained in the report would not in all cases be undiluted, original offerings. The originators of the ideas may well decide to modify them in order to achieve wider support, but they would not be driven to water down or otherwise modify their recommendations by the requirement for consensus.

Freeing Up Time

A major benefit of making such a report the key written product of the review conference is that it would free up most of the review conference’s time for doing what review conferences are supposed to do. Time could be allocated not just to reviewing the past record of implementation but also to discussing current international developments (e.g., the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the implications of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs) and current technological developments (e.g., 3-D printing, laser isotope enrichment, new verification technologies) that bear on nonproliferation. Time could also be allocated to structured discussions of specific recommendations for strengthening the regime.

In previous review conferences, a number of delegations have objected to the critical work of the conference being conducted in closed-door meetings with only a small number of governments represented, the results of which are not widely known or clearly understood before delegations are asked to join what may be a very murky consensus. By eliminating the requirement for consensus, this approach avoids the need for exclusive, secretive, eleventh-hour negotiations and enables the process to be more inclusive and transparent.

Likely Resistance

Although many NPT parties are dissatisfied with the current review process, there are several reasons why any effort to modify it is likely to encounter resistance.

Some governments will be reluctant to abandon the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” approach because they think it gives them leverage to achieve the review conference results they desire. For example, a number of non-nuclear-weapon states believe that the requirement for consensus helps them hold the nuclear-weapon states’ “feet to the fire” on nuclear disarmament. They assume that the nuclear-weapon states will make concessions and undertake commitments on nuclear disarmament that they would not otherwise make in order to have a consensus final document.

Such an assumption is not realistic and is not borne out by the record on nuclear disarmament issues or other matters that have been contentious at review conferences. The nuclear-weapon states or other groups of NPT parties would like to see a successful review conference, but they have not compromised and will not compromise what they regard as their national security or other core interests for the sake of a consensus conference outcome. It might be different if the failure to achieve a consensus final document were seen as highly damaging to their interests, but review conferences have “failed” half the time, and the sky has not fallen.

Review conferences have sometimes produced results on nuclear disarmament or other issues that met the insistent and sometimes long-standing demands of a large number of parties. Yet, such outcomes were not the product of intense pressures brought to bear by the requirement for consensus. Rather, they were produced because the parties urged to make concessions, usually the nuclear-weapon states, had come to the conclusion independent of review conference dynamics and supported by a propitious alignment of international or domestic developments that their national interests were compatible with the demands put forward by other parties. Holding their feet to the fire was not necessary.

If an effort to hold someone’s feet to the fire fails and the result is no final document, then the delegation seeking to exert leverage has achieved very little. Its proposal has not been given a boost by incorporation in a formal written outcome, and the delegation may even be blamed for holding the review conference hostage. The approach suggested here allows that delegation or group of delegations to include their proposal in the review conference’s report even if it cannot gain a consensus. In addition, by listing supporters, it allows them publicly to demonstrate wide approval, an outcome much more supportive of their initiative than a futile attempt to get everyone on board.

Another reason why some governments may be reluctant to abandon the all-or-nothing approach is that they may prefer no conference document at all to one that includes proposals they strongly oppose, even if it were made clear that those proposals did not enjoy a consensus. With the current requirement for consensus, governments are able to block any references to proposals they find objectionable. Under the approach recommended here, they would have to live with references in the conference document to proposals that make them uncomfortable. For example, some nuclear-weapon states might not wish to see a proposal to outlaw nuclear weapons addressed in the final report, especially if it were included with a large list of supporters.

It is not clear why recording such nonconsensus proposals in the conference report should be viewed as problematic. After all, such proposals and support for them exist. Simply noting them in the report would hardly increase the likelihood of their success, nor would denying them inclusion in any report by insisting that they achieve a consensus make them go away. Indeed, allowing them to be included in the report as nonconsensus proposals would reduce the pressure governments might feel to go along with such proposals in a consensus recommendation.

A closely related argument against modifying the current approach along the lines suggested here is that it would undermine the principle of consensus decision-making on important national security matters. Yet, the suggested approach does not involve the adoption of proposals that lack consensus; it simply permits the recording of such proposals and makes clear that they do not enjoy consensus support. It is unlike decision-making in international bodies where voting is permitted, such as the UN General Assembly, where proposals can be officially adopted without a consensus. No such status would apply to review conference proposals simply recorded in the nonconsensus section of a review conference report.

A more fundamental reason for supporting the status quo—one that governments may not care to admit—is that achieving a positive conference outcome may not be their highest priority. For some, damage limitation—avoiding findings and recommendations they oppose—may be more important than achieving an outcome with findings and recommendations they favor. For others, scoring political points against rivals or showcasing national initiatives may be more important than a positive conference outcome. For such governments, the failure to produce a conference final document—a “failed” review conference—is easily tolerable.

Inertia will also be an impediment to abandoning the all-or-nothing approach. All previous review conferences have tried to produce comprehensive, final documents. The path of least resistance for 2020 is simply to try again. After all, diplomats tend to be creatures of habit, and delegates who have attended previous review conferences are accustomed to operating in the customary way.

Moreover, it can be argued that reforms to strengthen the review process have already been undertaken, especially at the 1995 and 2000 review conferences, and that modest additional changes can remedy remaining deficiencies. A number of ideas currently under consideration regarding the efficient use of review conference time, the establishment of working bodies, the objectives of intersessional work, the selection of chairpersons, and so on could well improve the process. Yet, these modest reforms do not address the basic problem: the requirement that any conference outcome be adopted by consensus.

Time for a Change

For a variety of reasons, NPT parties may be reluctant to alter course in 2020, but no one can persuasively argue that the current approach is serving the interests of the parties or of the NPT regime. Review conferences have largely become wasted opportunities. Instead of carefully examining the operation of the treaty, assessing international and technological developments that affect nonproliferation objectives, and identifying, debating, and seeking common ground on practical proposals for strengthening the nonproliferation regime, review conferences have become high-energy diplomatic showdowns, with finger pointing, political gamesmanship, and desperate 11th-hour negotiations, but only rarely with concrete results that advance the goals of the NPT.

The NPT does not mandate how review conferences will be conducted. The parties can decide at any point to try something new. It is time that they did.


1.   “1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” n.d., http://www.un.org/Depts/ddar/nptconf/162.htm.

2.   “Full-Scope IAEA Safeguards as a Global Norm,” n.d., http://www.nci.org/06nci/04/Full-Scope%20IAEA%20Safeguards.htm

3.   See 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document, Volume I, Part I,” NPT/Conf.2010/50 (Vol. I), 2010. 

Robert Einhorn is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. During his career at the U.S. Department of State, he served as assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation during the Clinton administration and as the secretary of state’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control during the Obama administration. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to five nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conferences. An earlier version of this article was published in April 2016 by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies as an issue brief titled “The NPT Review Process: Time to Try Something New.”

Although the next review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is four years away, it is not too soon to discuss ways to remedy some of the shortcomings of the process.

The Hidden Side of the U.S.-Russian Strategic Confrontation

September 2016

By Alexey Arbatov

After more than two decades during which Cold War-era visions of nuclear Armageddon faded from public consciousness, alarms are sounding anew as a result of tense relations between Russia and the West. 

At the height of the Ukraine crisis in August 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a message to any nations that might seek to challenge Russia: “Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers,” he said in remarks during a visit to a state-sponsored youth camp. “These are not just words—this is the reality. What’s more, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrent capability and developing our armed forces.’’1 NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reflected Western concern at such talk, declaring that “Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling is unjustified, destabilizing and dangerous.”2

A Russian RS-24 Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is transported through Red Square in Moscow during the Victory Day military parade on May 9. [Photo credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images]In light of this, it is worthwhile to explore the context and history of Russia’s thinking about nuclear strategy and its divergence from U.S. and NATO approaches. In the West, there is a tradition of explaining Russian nuclear policy by projecting Western thinking onto Russian defense planners. This often leads to conclusions about an aggressive character of Moscow’s nuclear posture. Yet, the problem is not as simple as that. Its core is that Soviet and Russian nuclear mentality has been and remains very different from that of the United States and its allies. 

After the Cold War, those strategic discrepancies lay dormant in the background of improved political and strategic relations, having never been openly discussed, to say nothing of being mutually adjusted. Now, when the attention of policymakers and the general public has been drawn back to central nuclear issues, the time has come to correct this deficiency. Otherwise, it may lead to dangerous collisions in crisis situations and disintegration of the nuclear arms control system and process.

Official Doctrines

The most recent statement of Russian military doctrine in December 2014 retained the prior version’s restrained wording on employing nuclear arms: “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat.”3 

Incidentally, the official Russian strategic concept has only two differences from the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review.4 One is that the United States is apparently willing to defend its allies with the use of nuclear weapons if they are attacked by overwhelming conventional forces, whereas Russia does not provide such assurance. The other is Russian readiness to use nuclear arms if facing the prospect of defeat by large-scale conventional aggression, while the United States does not envision such a contingency.

The differences in U.S. and Russian strategic thinking are much deeper than may be construed from official documents. They are related to each nation’s specific way of dealing with nuclear deterrence, which stems from their historical experiences, political systems, decision-making mechanisms, geostrategic positions, and technological developments.

Nuclear Deterrence

Nuclear deterrence was not born together with nuclear weapons. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the United States considered atomic and hydrogen bombs dropped from aircraft as the ultimate means to destroy the enemy’s armed forces and urban-industrial assets if the Soviet Union or China were to attack U.S. allies in Europe or Asia. During those years, nuclear deterrence was primarily a fascinating theoretical subject rather than the tool of military strategy. 

Only by the end of the 1950s, following 15 years of nuclear weapons stockpiling and strategic thinking, did the concept of deterrence come to the forefront of U.S. military strategy. This change was the result of Soviet development of intercontinental nuclear weapons capable of reaching U.S. territory. After that, the U.S. political leadership recognized that nuclear weapons were too dangerous and should be used primarily to deter, rather than to defeat, the enemy.

The chief theoretician and practitioner of the “new nuclear thinking” was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, appointed by newly elected President John Kennedy in 1961. During the 1960s, after exploring a series of concepts (“counterforce-city avoidance,” “damage limitation”), the U.S. nuclear strategy firmly settled on the concept of “assured destruction.” In his famous 1967 speech in San Francisco, McNamara stated that deterrence of a “deliberate nuclear attack” on the United States or its allies is ensured by maintaining a highly reliable ability “to inflict an unacceptable degree of damage upon any single aggressor or combination of aggressors, at any time during the course of a strategic nuclear exchange, even after absorbing a surprise first strike.” At the same time, McNamara acknowledged that “the blunt, inescapable fact remains that the Soviet Union could still—with its present forces—effectively destroy the United States, even after absorbing the full weight of an American first strike.”5 

This kind of mentality and its implications were indeed a monumental strategic reformation. Yet, such public statements were unthinkable on the part of any high Soviet official of that time and actually remain unimaginable in today’s Russia, although this reality had been recognized in Moscow. For three decades, from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, McNamara’s way of thinking remained the foundation of the ideology of mutual deterrence and strategic stability, war prevention, forces sufficiency, and strategic arms control. 

The Soviet Union arrived at similar conclusions about nuclear war much later even at the declaratory level, to say nothing of military planning or arms programs. For the first quarter century of the nuclear age, the fundamental assumption of Soviet military doctrine had been that if a global war was unleashed by the West, the Soviet Union would defeat the enemy and achieve victory, despite enormous ensuing damage.6 Only during the 1970s did Moscow start to change its official declaratory position on the subject and gradually accept the idea of the impossibility of victory in a nuclear war due to its unprecedented destructive consequences. The most important factor shaping this change was the beginning of strategic negotiations with the United States.

Thus, the first major difference in the Russian and U.S. ways of thinking about nuclear weapons is the historical origins. In the United States, the new thinking on nuclear matters was the product of McNamara’s efforts at securing political control over nuclear strategy, arms, and war plans. In the Soviet Union, the “new look” at nuclear war was foremost the product of arms control. The strategic concepts of Moscow and Washington were fundamentally incompatible until the late 1960s. During the 1970s, they edged closer through recognition of parity and the destabilizing effect of anti-missile defenses, reflected in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the interim Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) in 1972 and SALT II in 1979. Those treaties could not be justified in the USSR without recognition of the impossibility of victory in a global war. On this basis, the U.S. and Soviet leaders concluded special agreements and joint statements, which postulated that “nuclear war would have devastating consequences for mankind”7 and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”8

Currently, after a six-year hiatus following the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the two nations are as wide apart as in the early 1980s, which creates a growing threat of a fatal military misunderstanding between them. The stalemate in arms control talks has removed an important channel of strategic communication between Russian and U.S. national command authorities. A prolonged breakdown of regular military-to-military contacts and the arrival of a new generation of commanders, which are more disrespectful and combative toward each other than their predecessors, may result in dangerous collisions when armed forces maneuver in close proximity.

No one explained the danger of this widening gap better than William Perry, who served as defense secretary from February 1994 to January 1997 under President Bill Clinton. In his recent book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, he recalls his experience as a Pentagon official in the late 1970s, at a tense time when the Soviet Union was racing to match then exceed the U.S. nuclear warhead count. He writes that a successful arms control agreement in 1977 could have put a brake on the arms race “but, even more important, it would have engaged us in a dialogue with our deadly foe, given both sides a degree of transparency and, most critically, given us context—a better understanding of our opponent—to inform the awesome decisions we were expected to make in a heartbeat.”9 His observation looking back nearly four decades is relevant today in the context of difficult U.S.-Russian relations.

Nuclear-Strike Authorization

One of the basic attributes of the U.S. political system and, in general, of democratic systems is civilian control over the military. In the USSR and Russia, political and military authorities traditionally have been merged. After the Cold War, there were cautious experiments with the introduction of some civilian elements at the top echelon of the Russian Ministry of Defense, but they had little impact. 

An illustration of this difference is each state’s arrangement related to nuclear strike authorization. At first glance, there are analogous systems providing the state leadership with an exclusive technical capacity to sanction a nuclear strike and prevent unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. In the USSR, a system was introduced in 1985 that emulated the U.S. “football”—the president’s briefcase containing nuclear codes and commands—which was adopted in the early 1960s.10 Still, there is one key difference between the two systems, which has political roots. 

A military aide carries the president’s emergency satchel, often referred to as the nuclear “football,” as President Barack Obama returns to the White House on May 15. [Photo credit: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images]The U.S. president is the only holder of the nuclear briefcase within a legalized chain of successors in case of the president’s incapacitation. (In consideration of that possibility, a backup satchel travels with the vice president.11) In this succession, the defense secretary is low on the list. The Soviet/Russian analogue, called “Cheget,” consists of three “briefcases” held by the president (the general secretary of the Communist Party in the past), the defense minister, and the head of the military General Staff.12 It is a great secret whether these three persons are technically able to give authority to launch missiles only together or two or one of them can do it in case the others are incapacitated. In any case, two out of three decision-makers are the top military officials, while constitutional presidential successors (the prime minister, speakers of the chambers of parliament) are excluded from the chain of command. Despite the revolutionary change in the Russian political system in 1991, this nuclear command model has remained intact.13

Strategic thinking in the West has benefited from the deep involvement of independent legislatures, free discussion between political scientists and military experts, the broad availability of defense information, and the regular movement of civilians and military personnel between government posts and the academic world. This provided for less biased views on the intentions of the opposing side and brought political (rather than military) attitudes to the trade-off between the danger of inadvertent nuclear war and operational advantages of the first strike.

Due to a different political system and historical tradition, neither social or physical scientists nor state officials or military ones could freely discuss such topics in the USSR. Discussions became possible in public, legislative, and executive branches of government only during the second half of the 1980s. During the 1990s and early 2000s, following the demise of the Soviet Union, the situation in Russia changed further in favor of the access, although actual nuclear strategy and operational planning remained the exclusive domain of the military, except for a short period of the late 1990s. Now that the two nations’ political systems are no longer as antagonistic as during the Cold War, better mutual understanding of such matters would be beneficial to both parties. 

Strategic Stability

Another important difference between the two states relates to the notion of strategic stability. In the joint U.S.-Soviet statement of June 1990, stability was defined as a state of strategic relations that is “removing incentives for a nuclear first strike.” This was to be achieved through a mutually acceptable “relationship between strategic offensive and defensive arms,” by “reducing the concentration of warheads on strategic delivery vehicles, and giving priority to highly survivable systems.”14

Nonetheless, this logic was only super-ficially acknowledged by Moscow. In striving to avert nuclear war, the Soviet/Russian leadership has never recognized that some types of the nuclear posture may make war more probable in a crisis situation at least as its own posture was concerned. 

In contrast to McNamara’s assured destruction doctrine, which implied second-strike capability, actual U.S. war plans emphasized attacking Soviet strategic forces and other military sites before hitting urban-industrial centers, which implied first strike. McNamara’s final Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) for nuclear war, adopted in February 1967, included the same basic versions of nuclear attacks as his SIOP-63, and the target list was expanded to 10,000 sites.15 

During the 1970s and 1980s, counterforce options and hard-target-kill capability was an important, even if variable, element of the U.S. nuclear posture. Still, the first-strike implications of counterforce strategy have been a touchy and controversial subject in U.S. defense policy, stirring heated debates in Congress and the strategic community and affecting weapon programs decisions in the Department of Defense during the two decades after McNamara’s “strategic reformation.”

Nothing of the kind took place in the USSR or Russia. The benefit of attacking strategic forces of the opponent was never put in doubt, and such capability was to be enhanced within the limits of technology and budget. Counterforce weapon systems and their employment plans have been and are now considered an indispensable attribute of deterrence posture. Hence, the principles of strategic stability, formalized in the 1990 statement, were considered as guidance for arms control but not of strategic doctrine, operational planning, or weapon programs. 

At the same time, when directed by politically motivated decisions of state authorities, the Russian military had to grudgingly sacrifice counterforce capabilities for the sake of reaching arms control agreements. The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) forced a 50 percent reduction in Russian heavy, or most powerful, intercontinental ballistic missiles. START II envisioned the elimination of all land-based missiles with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles. This is yet another example of the unique role of arms control for Moscow’s strategic policy. 

It is a matter of great uncertainty whether U.S. logic of “nuclear first use and phased escalation”16 or the Russian idea of an “all-out war once deterrence fails” may make a catastrophe more probable. A sign of a Russian attempt to emulate U.S. concepts of selective nuclear use for the purposes of “demonstration of resolve” or “de-escalation” caused a great alarm in the West when political tensions with Russia escalated in 2014-2015.17 Such concepts were perceived as lowering the “nuclear threshold” rather than preventing massive nuclear exchange.

Bridging the Gap

The nuclear rhetoric and armed forces’ activities of Russia and NATO in 2013-2015 have revived the danger of nuclear war that looked totally unthinkable only five years ago. Moreover, after a quarter century pause, Russia and the United States are again on the verge of a massive and multichannel cycle of the arms race, as pointed out by Robert Legvold, a respected U.S. scholar of Soviet and post-Soviet foreign policy: “The United States and Russia, in modernizing all three legs of their nuclear triads, have reopened a potential competition between offensive and defensive systems and introduced new destabilizing technologies, such as conventionally armed strategic missiles theoretically capable of striking the other side’s nuclear weapons, thus blurring the firebreak between conventional and nuclear warfare.”18 

Besides the political split over Ukraine and disagreements on ballistic missile defenses and conventional global hypersonic systems, the two states are now deeply divided in their fundamental views on the role of nuclear weapons, assessments of strategic balance, and perceptions of possible causes of war. These contradictions and their origins should be understood by both powers. Russia and the United States should make an effort to forge a common, up-to-date understanding of strategic stability and enhance it by arms control provisions and through regular military and civilian contacts.

Such common principles should postulate that, despite the end of the Cold War a quarter century ago, the nuclear posture of each side may increase the probability of nuclear war despite their mutual desire to avoid it. U.S. and Russian military programs affect each other and may incite an arms race. Weapon systems that threaten the survivability of each other’s strategic forces and command, control, communications, and intelligence assets imply a first-strike strategy and provoke pre-emption. While undertaking phased reduction of nuclear forces, both sides should reach agreements to alleviate mutual concerns about prompt and slow counterforce systems, even if those are designed against other opponents. Expanding defensive systems to reduce each side’s vulnerability to “rogue states” should only be based on U.S.-Russian agreements. Systems and concepts blurring the line between nuclear and conventional operations are inherently destabilizing and should be subjected to limitations and confidence-building measures. 

There must be a mutual understanding that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is escalatory and should be excluded from bilateral strategic relations. Prevention of conventional aggression should be ensured not by a threat of nuclear escalation, even if called de-escalation, but by sufficient conventional forces or, still better, by mutual reductions of conventional troops and arms, limitations on military activities, and confidence-building measures.

The rapid reintroduction of the possibility of nuclear confrontation in U.S.-Russian relations may serve as a serious warning that peace between great powers should not be taken for granted. Supporting it requires relentless effort and a much deeper understanding of the security outlook and strategic peculiarity of each other. This is one of the main lessons to be drawn from the quarter century that has passed since the end of the Cold War.


1.   Vladimir Putin, excerpts from transcript of meeting with Seliger 2014 Forum participants, August 29, 2014, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/46507.

2.    Jens Stoltenberg, “Adapting to a Changed Security Environment” (remarks, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, May 27, 2015), http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_120166.htm?selectedLocale=en.

3.   “Voennaya Doktrina Rossiiskoi Federatsii” [Military doctrine of the Russian Federation], Rossiiskaya Gazeta, December 30, 2014, http://rg.ru/2014/12/30/doktrina-dok.html.

4.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, http://archive.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010%20Nuclear%20Posture%20Review%20Report.pdf

5.   Robert McNamara, The Essence of Security: Reflections in Office (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 51-67.

6.   Vladimir Tolubko, Raketnyevoiska [Rocket forces] (Moscow: Voenizdat, 1977).

7.   Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Nuclear War, U.S.-USSR, June 22, 1973, 24 U.S.T. 1478.

8.   “Joint Statement on the Soviet-United States Summit Meeting,” December 10, 1987, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=33803.

9.   William Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 53.

10.   David Hoffman, Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009), p. 149.

11.   John T. Bennett and Eric Garcia, “Biden: Trump ‘Not Qualified to Know’ Nuclear Codes,” Roll Call, August 15, 2016.

12.   “Chemodanchik nomer odin” [Briefcase number one], Trud, January 11, 2000.

13.   While in the Duma, the author submitted a draft law titled “On the succession of supreme command,” under which the president would be the only holder of the “Cheget” terminal and his successors would be the prime minister and the speakers of the two chambers of parliament. The rest of the Duma and executive authorities refused to promote this draft law. 

14.   “Soviet-United States Joint Statement on Future Negotiations on Nuclear and Space Arms and Further Enhancing Strategic Stability,” June 1, 1990, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=18541.

15.   Milton Leitenberg, “Presidential Directive (P.D.) 59: United States Nuclear Weapon Targeting Policy,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 18, No. 4 (December 1981): 314-315.

16.   For a discussion of these concepts, see Brad Roberts, The Case for Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), ch. 6; Franklin C. Miller, “Adjusting NATO’s Nuclear Policies: A Five Step Program,” Atlantic Council, March 23, 2016, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/natosource/adjusting-nato-s-nuclear-policies-a-five-step-program.

17.   Ministerstvo Oborony, Aktualnie Zadachirazvitiya Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiiskoi Federatsii [Critical tasks of the development of the armed forces of the Russian Federation] (Moscow: Ministerstvo Oborony, 2003); Markell Boytsov, “Terminologiya v voennoi doctrine” [Terminology of the military doctrine], Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, October 31, 2014, http://nvo.ng.ru/concepts/2014-10-31/10_doctrina.html; Konstantin Sivkov, “Pravo naudar” [Right to strike], Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er, March 5, 2014, http://vpk-news.ru/articles/19370.

18.   Robert Legvold, Return to Cold War (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2016), p. 132.

Alexey Arbatov is the head of the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations and head of the Nonproliferation Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Moscow Center. He served in the Russian Parliament and was deputy chair of the Defense Committee. This paper is part of a project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and the author expresses gratitude for assistance from Robert Legvold.

The Soviet and Russian nuclear mentality has been and remains very different from that of the United States and its allies. The rapid reintroduction of the possibility of nuclear confrontation in U.S.-Russian relations...

BOOK REVIEW: Why More Warheads Bring Less Security

September 2016

Reviewed by James E. Doyle

The Lure & Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age
Edited by Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler, and Shane Mason, Stimson Center, 2016, 204 pp.

Embracing theories of nuclear war-fighting and deploying capabilities to attack the nuclear forces of a potential adversary provide nations with little security advantage and obligate them to spend vast defense resources on nuclear forces for decades. Such reliance on this expansive approach to nuclear deterrence can also hinder the improvement of political relations and increase the chances of unintended nuclear war during a crisis. China, India, and Pakistan should be mindful of this as they structure their future nuclear forces. Further, the security interests of the two dominant nuclear-weapon powers, the United States and Russia, would be served by disavowing theories of victory in nuclear warfare. 

That is the basic message of “The Lure & Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age,” an important recent study edited by Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler, and Shane Mason and published by the Stimson Center. This study fills a gap and breaks new ground in the scholarship on the technology of the nuclear arms competition.

The focus of this collection of six essays is the technology for placing multiple nuclear warheads on a single ballistic missile and providing those warheads the ability to attack the protected nuclear forces of an adversary. Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China have adopted this innovation, pioneered by the United States in the 1960s. India and Pakistan are developing this capability and are likely to deploy such missiles in the near future. 

This report makes a vital contribution to international security research and provides detailed history of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry in multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Through the writings of regional security experts and former military officials, it also analyzes the emerging nuclear forces and doctrines in China, India, and Pakistan.

The study cautions decision-makers in China, India, and Pakistan that if they wish to “avoid repeating the missteps of the United States and the Soviet Union during the first nuclear age,” they must limit the extent to which multiple warheads are placed atop missiles and proceed at a slow pace. Most importantly, they should reject nuclear counterforce targeting strategies and war-fighting doctrine. Such nuclear war-fighting strategies during the first nuclear age resulted in heightened insecurity and a prolonged nuclear arms race.

The advent of MIRVs combined with increases in missile accuracy enabled the targeting of opponents’ nuclear forces by means of prompt hard-target-kill capabilities. The authors correctly conclude that “when deterrence of nuclear attack is predicated on the ability to attack opposing forces quickly, it becomes very hard for national leaders to stabilize political relations and proceed with arms control.”

MIRVs propelled vertical proliferation more than any other technological advance during the first nuclear age and gave rise to pyrrhic notions of prevailing in a nuclear war. This lesson is drawn from the solid research on the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. This study comes at a critical time because the United States and Russia are entering a new round of this competition and other nuclear powers appear to be following suit.

Perceived Advantages

MIRV technology combined with greater missile accuracy enables ballistic missiles to target hardened missile silos, airfields, submarine bases, and command centers. For example, the United States and the Soviet Union placed up to 10 or more nuclear warheads on a single missile so that a force of 50 missiles could destroy 500 or more separate targets. The United States made extensive deployments of MIRVs first, rapidly expanding the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal. This was considered to have several important advantages. 

Most importantly, it was thought to provide a nuclear force superior to the Soviet Union. Although deterrence theory holds that nuclear war will be avoided because each side is equally vulnerable to destruction by the other, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union (or Russia today) has been satisfied with this condition. Each side sought nuclear forces that would provide some measure of advantage over the other. The United States, in particular, believed during the Cold War that the perception of nuclear superiority was vital to its entire national security and foreign policy strategies, as this study demonstrates with meticulous evidence from official documents, memoirs, and declassified sources.

This refusal to accept mutual vulnerability was expressed in many ways and drove the development of expanded nuclear doctrine and nuclear forces with ever-increasing capabilities. As Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long explain in the book’s first essay, “The Geopolitical Origins of US Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVs,” U.S. “[p]olicymakers believed that the nuclear balance would shape the political choices of other states—the Soviet Union, NATO allies, and third parties.... American leaders also believed that perceptions of the strategic balance abroad might influence international politics to the detriment of US national and international security.”

International Perceptions

Because U.S. policymakers believed that international perceptions of the balance were of pivotal importance for U.S. interests, they supported superiority in MIRVs and other measures of nuclear competition. It was considered essential that U.S. nuclear forces conveyed military strength and political resolve in order to reassure friends and induce caution among potential adversaries. Arcane metrics for assessing the nuclear balance such as missile payload weight, the number of deliverable warheads, their ability to defeat missile defenses, and their explosive power were valued and painstakingly assessed by strategic analysts. 

It did not matter that asymmetries in these categories of nuclear strength had dubious efficacy on the outcome of war if deterrence failed and a major exchange of nuclear weapons occurred. The perception of advantage was thought to be more important than actual advantage. This belief system sets up an endless cycle of nuclear weapons competition that endures and is intensifying between the United States and Russia today. 

The authors drive this point home with quotes from key U.S. statesmen of the Cold War era. For example, President Richard Nixon said of the nuclear balance, “Our view of our advantages or disadvantages will determine whether we can pursue an aggressive or timid foreign policy.”

James Schlesinger, U.S. secretary of defense from 1973 to 1975, argued that the United States might need large numbers of MIRVs with hard-target-kill capabilities “[j]ust so they [the Soviets] don’t think they are ahead.” Henry Kissinger, who served as Nixon’s secretary of state and national security adviser, also acknowledged that nuclear perceptions could be decisive. “Our [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks II] agreement can’t result in serious inequalities,” he argued, “if for no other reason than that other countries will look at these differences and assume we are inferior. Therefore, it will affect our foreign policy.” Stansfield Turner, CIA director from 1977 to 1981, also warned of the political consequences of letting the Soviets have a nuclear force that could attack U.S. land-based missiles and still have weapons in reserve: “I personally do not believe that [increasing U.S. missile vulnerability] means that the Soviets would be likely to be tempted to launch a strategic attack against us…. But I do believe that the perception of superiority that will give to the Soviets, and perhaps to our allies and others, is unacceptable to us.”

MIRV technology was also thought to provide the United States with several nuclear war-fighting advantages should deterrence fail. The first was so-called damage-limitation capability. The best way to limit an adversary’s ability to inflict damage on the United States was to promptly destroy as much of that nation’s nuclear arsenal as possible before it could be used. MIRVs allow an adversary’s nuclear arsenal to be heavily damaged by only a portion of an attacker’s overall force, leaving the attacker a potentially larger reserve of nuclear weapons to deter a weakened response. In the case of the Soviet Union, which deployed the vast majority of its nuclear forces on vulnerable silo-based missiles, this doctrine permitted one U.S. theory of victory in nuclear war. Following warning of an attack or pre-emptively, the United States could destroy much of the Soviet arsenal and national infrastructure and face only limited retaliation or possibly even termination of the conflict on favorable terms.

Of course, this theory also worked in reverse. Once the Soviets acquired a large force of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with MIRV capability, they too had the option to strike first. When both nations possessed such capabilities, the incentives to launch on warning of an attack increased. Because early-warning systems are imperfect and prone to false alarms, this raised the risks of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation, a situation that persists today. 

An undated U.S. Air Force photograph of LGM-118A Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile re-entry vehicles during a flight test. The 50 deployed Peacekeepers, the most powerful U.S. missile from 1986 to 2005, were deactivated following the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia. [Photo credit: U.S. Air Force]Another military advantage offered by MIRV technology was the ability to implement limited nuclear strikes over a protracted period of time. U.S. strategists embraced such limited nuclear options as a plausible alternative to a massive exchange of nuclear weapons. Green and Long explain that these were conceptualized as attacks “with a limited number of weapons to cause pain, demonstrate US resolve, and incentivize the Soviet Union to stand down in the early stages of a nuclear war.” They quote a 1973 U.S. National Security Memorandum that asserts that limited nuclear options “could potentially also provide a capability to conduct discrete limited attacks on enemy forces in an immediate area to deny a local objective.” The cost-effectiveness of MIRVs, where one missile can carry several warheads, made acquiring these capabilities more feasible and provided wider targeting options.

MIRVs made another theory of nuclear victory possible. This was a limited pre-emptive strike designed to “decapitate” the Soviet command-and-control system and its most vulnerable nuclear forces, thus preventing it from marshaling even a ragged, weak retaliation. Targets to be struck by the fastest-arriving U.S. weapons (missiles with MIRV capability on submarines near the Soviet borders) included the Soviet political and military leadership, launch control centers and communications links, missile fields, and submarine pens. This threat from U.S. forces eventually led the Soviets to deploy a system called “perimeter” or “dead hand,” which could be predelegated to automatically launch nuclear retaliation against the United States without requiring authorization from the Soviet command authority, most or all of whom would have died in the U.S. attack.1

Hardened Targets

The embrace of nuclear war-fighting concepts such as damage-limiting first strikes, limited nuclear options, and decapitation all required accurate MIRVs capable of destroying hard targets because most militarily critical targets, including missile silos and command bunkers, were hardened to survive nuclear strikes that did not land very close to their aimpoints. When the capability to place the target within the crater caused by the nuclear explosion was acquired, these strategies became possible. 

Ironically, as the authors point out, “the strongest advocates of MIRVing in the United States and the Soviet Union were the quickest to question the motives behind each other’s programs: Why go to such lengths—and to the high launch-readiness associated with vulnerable and lucrative targets—if not to signal a commitment to nuclear warfighting in the event of a breakdown in deterrence?”

This key observation leads to another negative consequence of nuclear counterforce strategies, which is highlighted in the report’s second chapter, “The Impact of MIRVs and Counterforce Targeting on the US-Soviet Relationship,” by Russian scholars Alexey Arbatov, a member of the Scientific Council of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Advisory Council of the Russian Prime Minister, and retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, who had served as an expert for the preparation of key U.S.-Russian bilateral nuclear treaties.

That consequence is mutual misperception, fear, and distrust in military relations that spills over to the political dimension. Arbatov and Dvorkin convincingly argue that had diplomatic efforts to constrain MIRVs succeeded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S.-Soviet nuclear rivalry would have been far less intense and dangerous. The authors rightly contend, “The interaction of ballistic missiles and MIRVs with strategic doctrines of the United States and the Soviet Union deeply affected the military relations of the two powers for at least a quarter-century and precipitated two rounds of a highly expensive and threatening arms race—with dire implications for international security.”

The dynamics of the U.S.-Soviet arms race were clear: the deployment of accurate ballistic missiles with MIRV capability gave the United States the theoretical ability to deliver a disarming strike against Soviet strategic nuclear forces. 

The Soviet Union responded by deploying MIRVed ballistic missiles of its own to achieve parity in the number of warheads and to increase its ability to penetrate the anti-ballistic missile system that the United States was expected to develop. This development placed at risk the United States’ silo-based missiles and command centers. The United States then hardened its command and control and MIRVed hundreds of ballistic missiles aboard submarines that were relatively invulnerable to a first strike. The Soviets then deployed missiles on mobile launchers; created mobile command centers; built reserve airfields for its strategic bombers; and increased the number of nuclear ballistic missile submarines on sea patrol.

Both sides failed to acknowledge that some of the characteristics and capabilities of these weapons systems constrained options and compressed the timescale for decisions in a crisis, outcomes that made war by miscalculation more likely. Assessing the impact of force postures on war probability was not a priority for either side until after the Cold War was over. Unfortunately, it appears that the lessons of this history remain unlearned and classic nuclear stability is again taking a back seat to U.S.-Russian nuclear muscle-flexing, especially in the realm of nonstrategic nuclear forces. Indeed, the current controversy over launch-on-warning strategies that allow a U.S. president only several minutes to decide to retaliate for an attack indicated by error-prone early-warning systems is a legacy of the U.S.-Soviet competition in MIRVs.2

The U.S.-Chinese strategic relationship now equals or exceeds that with Russia in terms of its consequences for international stability. Beijing maintains strategic capabilities far below those of Washington and Moscow, but is modernizing its nuclear forces and appears to have equipped its DF-5 ICBM with MIRVs. As author Jeffrey Lewis makes clear, there is little evidence “to conclude that this is driven by military requirements associated with the pursuit of a counterforce targeting strategy.” Rather, the primary reason for China placing MIRVs on the DF-5 is to ensure that some warheads could penetrate U.S. missile defenses, therefore deterring U.S. aggression.

As Lewis makes clear, the chances that nuclear war-fighting strategies will enter the U.S.-Chinese strategic balance are growing. China has deployed anti-satellite weapons on the ground and in space that could eliminate the surveillance and intelligence on which the United States depends to attack mobile targets and cue missile defense systems. These systems would be lucrative targets for the United States in any future regional conflict with China and could be attacked early with long-range conventional weapons. 

The MK-21 multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles for the LGM-118A Peacekeeper missile on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio. [Photo credit: U.S. Air Force]The recessed nature of the Chinese nuclear deterrent might also increase classic forms of deterrence instability. Most Chinese warheads that can reach the United States are deployed on mobile missiles that remain in their garrisons and increasingly on submarines that spend most of their time in port. In this configuration, they are vulnerable to a first strike by U.S. MIRVs. Lewis observes that if both sides judged that war was about to break out, incentives would be high for China to disperse its nuclear forces and for the United States to strike them before this could be achieved. Moreover, Chinese strategists are beginning to highlight the potential benefits of alerting their nuclear forces to signal resolve and avoid nuclear coercion by the United States. The United States might perceive such alerts as preparation for launch and consider pre-emptive attacks, sharply increasing crisis instability.

MIRV technology would also introduce instabilities to the Chinese-Indian and Indian-Pakistani nuclear balances. Most Indian strategists agree that any increase in China’s nuclear strength requires a response from India. India suspects China of developing ballistic missile defenses. If it does so, India would have greater incentives to use MIRVs on its ballistic missile force. Other incentives exist, such as cost-effectiveness and the desire for India to be seen as possessing a technologically “modern” nuclear force. In fact, authors Rajesh Basrur and Jaganath Sankaran posit in their essay “India’s Slow and Unstoppable Move to MIRV” that making use of MIRVs in India may not even require political approval “because it is not viewed as a new weapon system, but one that is an extension of an existing (missile) technology.”

MIRVs or multiple warheads without independent targeting capability are not seen in India as inconsistent with its recessed deterrence forces. They could be developed for ballistic missiles that remain in a low state of day-to-day readiness. India does not possess the tracking or command-and-control capabilities to support counterforce targeting today, but will develop such capabilities over time. 

Pakistani nuclear doctrine differs fundamentally from Chinese and Indian doctrines. Pakistan sees nuclear weapons and the option to use them first as necessary to offset conventional force disparities with India. So, India’s pursuit of MIRVs and missile defenses challenge the effectiveness of Pakistani strategic deterrent. If India introduces MIRVs, Pakistan is likely to do so as well. This is the conclusion by Feroz Khan and Mansoor Ahmed in their chapter. Other priorities for Pakistan would be to increase the survivability of its nuclear forces through completion of a triad of delivery vehicles, the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles, and improvements to command, control, surveillance and targeting.

China, India, and Pakistan remain well behind the Unites States and Russia in counterforce nuclear capabilities, and their doctrines currently reflect these limitations. Over time, however, this study warns that “[t]he cascading effects of competitive MIRVing, flowing from the United States (and Russia) to China to India and finally Pakistan, have created a multidimensional security dilemma that appears to be leading inexorably to a new and complex problem in Asian security.” This dynamic will increase incentives for arms races, increased alert postures, and greater counterforce targeting capability—outcomes that decrease strategic stability in East and South Asia.

This report counsels that such negative developments are not inevitable but will flow from deliberate choices made by Asian nuclear powers. So far, China has exercised the most nuclear restraint, including the very limited size of its nuclear forces, its lack of counterforce capability, and the recessed nature of Chinese nuclear doctrine. In stark contrast to beliefs in the West that robust nuclear forces and war-fighting doctrine are essential enablers of successful foreign policy, China’s rise in world affairs has hardly been hindered by its modest nuclear strategy. Indeed, China may provide an example of strategically wise management of nuclear policy and resources. Although controversy surrounds China’s ambitions in the South and East China seas, its actions there have not been linked to expansive nuclear deployments or doctrine. India has also taken a measured pace to enlarging its nuclear arsenal and maintains a retaliatory doctrine. 

Whether this restraint will endure has grave implications for global security and depends on many unpredictable factors worthy of constant analysis. “The Lure & Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age” is a powerful resource for scholars and policymakers concerned with these questions. Its global scope, as well as its intricate details of the technical and political dimensions of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War arms race, provides valuable reference material that is accessible, well organized, and well documented with primary sources. This book advances understanding of the dynamics of nuclear arms competitions, the forces that trap nations in endless counterforce strategies, and the burdens and dangers that result. 


1.   Aaron Stein, “Putin’s Dead Hand,” Arms Control Wonk, podcast audio, March 8, 2015, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/5263/putins-dead-hand/.

2.   Jeffrey Lewis, “Our Nuclear Procedures Are Crazier Than Trump,” Foreign Policy, August 5, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/05/our-nuclear-procedures-are-crazier-than-trump/.

James E. Doyle is is an independent nuclear security specialist. He was a technical staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1997 to 2014.

The focus of this collection of essays is the nuclear-warhead technology for placing multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles on a ballistic missile...

In Memoriam: Jeremiah D. Sullivan (1938-2016)

September 2016

By Terry Atlas

Professor Jeremiah D. Sullivan, 77, a physicist whose research helped establish the technical basis for banning nuclear weapons testing, died on July 7 at his home in Urbana, Illinois. Until retirement in 2006, Sullivan was the head of the physics department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where, in addition to his physics research, he helped develop the university’s Program in Arms Control & Domestic and International Security.

For more than three decades, Sullivan was a member of JASON, the elite group of academic scientists who meet each summer to advise the U.S. government on often-classified issues related to technology and national security, including nuclear weapons. In 1995 the panel issued a report that provided scientific backing for completely ending nuclear weapons detonation tests as unnecessary to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. 

[Photo credit: Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]Stanford University Professor (Emeritus) Sidney Drell, a long-time friend who was chairman of the 1995 JASON study group, said that Sullivan made a number of significant contributions over his career, “most notably the case for negotiating a verifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

Sullivan served on the board of directors of the Arms Control Association from March 1994 to February 2015. Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball said his “quiet but important and principled work helped to shape policy on nuclear matters in ways that have helped make us all safer.”

Born November 15, 1938, in Norwood, Massachusetts, Sullivan received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1964, following a B.S. in physics in 1960 from Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University. He spent his postdoctoral years as a research associate in the theoretical physics group at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) before moving to Illinois. In the early years of his career, he made significant contributions to particle physics.

In addition to his work as a member of JASON, he contributed to other studies and reviews that influenced U.S. defense policy. “He contributed to a number of studies with a primary focus on our nuclear weapons program, including its safety and security, as well as its quality,” said Drell. “This enabled the U.S. to enter into arms control negotiations, particularly with the Soviet Union, with confidence.”

In 2000 he received the American Physical Society’s Leo Szilard Lectureship Award, which recognizes outstanding accomplishments in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society. The award’s citation said, “For leadership in addressing technically complex and often controversial national security issues, such as anti-ballistic missiles, stockpile stewardship, and a comprehensive test ban; and for setting a high standard for applying the rigorous methods of physics to the challenging problems of integrating advanced technology with sound policy in a democratic society.”

Sullivan is survived by his wife of 54 years, Sheila (Bonar) Sullivan; his daughter Maureen E. Sullivan; son Jeremiah J. Sullivan; and granddaughter Lily S. Sullivan. The family plans to hold an event celebrating his life September 24 at the University of Illinois Alumni Center.

Professor Jeremiah D. Sullivan, 77, a physicist whose research helped establish the technical basis for banning nuclear weapons testing, died on July 7 at his home in Urbana, Illinois.

U.S. Moves Forward on Test Ban Resolution

September 2016

By Shervin Taheran

President Barack Obama is seeking a UN Security Council resolution that would strengthen the global norms against nuclear weapons explosive testing in a move that coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The proposed resolution “is intended to reinforce global support for the CTBT and its verification system” and to “stigmatize those that continue to test and act in ways contrary to a de facto norm of international behavior,” a State Department spokesperson said in an Aug. 11 email to Arms Control Today

President Barack Obama shakes hands with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key April 1 during the nuclear security summit in Washington. New Zealand assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council in September, when a U.S.-backed resolution reinforcing the global norm against nuclear testing may be adopted. [Photo credit: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images]Although President Bill Clinton was the first world leader to sign the treaty on Sept. 24, 1996, its first day open for signature, the failure of the United States and seven other key nations to ratify the accord has prevented its entry into force. The move for Security Council action reflects the uncertainty about when and even whether holdout nations will ratify the treaty, which bans all nuclear test explosions.

The State Department official said that the Obama administration has begun to engage with Security Council members, including the other permanent members (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom), on “potential steps” to “support existing national moratoria on nuclear tests.” New Zealand is set to assume the presidency of the Security Council during September, when the issue may be debated. 

The concept of a Security Council resolution on the test ban has been discussed in diplomatic circles for months. At a special June 13 ministerial meeting on the CTBT in Vienna, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov proposed that the Security Council raise the issue of the CTBT to encourage the treaty’s entry into force and to solidify the global norm against nuclear testing. (See ACT, July/August 2016.)

A total of 183 states, including the five permanent Security Council members, have signed the CTBT. But under terms outlined in Annex 2 of the treaty, 44 specified countries must ratify the treaty to bring it into force. 

There are eight Annex 2 states that have yet to ratify: China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the United States, which have signed the treaty, and India, North Korea, and Pakistan, which have not signed. Of those, China, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, while Iran gave up the capacity to produce nuclear weapons under a 2015 accord with the P5+1 nations (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Egypt does not have nuclear weapons or the technical means to produce them.

In addition to the resolution, the administration is exploring the option of a “political” statement by the five permanent Security Council members “expressing the view that a nuclear test would defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT,” according to an Aug. 12 letter to Obama from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who was briefed on the initiative by administration officials in early August. 

Corker and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) were quick to oppose what they claim is an effort to “circumvent” the Senate. In his letter, Corker said that any political statement expressing the view that a nuclear test would defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT “could trigger a limitation on the ability of future administrations to conduct nuclear weapons tests.” 

Pending entry into force, treaty signatories are obliged under Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties to refrain from acts that would defeat the object or purpose of the treaty. While Corker notes that the United States has not yet ratified the Vienna Convention, he adds that “object and purpose” obligations “have been recognized by successive U.S. administrations as customary international law that present a binding restriction on the United States.” 

The administration maintains that the proposed resolution would not create any new legal restrictions on testing, although it may strengthen the political barriers. Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, stressed to Politico on Aug. 9 that the “Obama administration is not—and I repeat not—proposing or supporting a UN Security Council resolution that would impose any legally binding prohibition on nuclear explosive testing.” 

“We remain committed to pursuing U.S. ratification of [the] CTBT,” she said. “We fully respect the Senate’s role in the advice and consent process. Our goal with this [resolution] is to improve the global verification architecture for detecting such testing.” The Security Council resolution “is in no way a substitute for early entry into force of the CTBT,” she said.

On Oct. 13, 1999, the Senate rejected the treaty by a vote of a 51-48. Treaty approval requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate. Since 2009, the Obama administration has sought without success to re-engage the Senate on issues related to the CTBT, which remains on the executive calendar of the Senate.

Some members of Congress welcomed the initiative to reinforce the nuclear test moratorium. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in an Aug. 5 statement that he “commend[s] President Obama for leading the international community to reinforce the global moratorium against testing. The U.S. Senate should join in this effort by voting to ratify” the CTBT.

At the United Nations, President Barack Obama is seeking to strengthen global norms against nuclear weapons explosive testing.

Nations Debate How to Review BWC

September 2016

By Jenifer Mackby

Arms control experts attending the August preparatory committee meeting for the planned Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) review conference explored questions about how to adapt the accord in a time of accelerating scientific advances, emerging infectious diseases, and increasing risks of bioterrorism. They also considered international cooperation and assistance, export controls, and the possible establishment of a code of conduct.

The states-parties to the convention prohibiting the development and production of such weapons gathered in Geneva on Aug. 8-12 to prepare for the eighth review conference, to be held Nov. 7-25. Typically, such preparatory committee meetings are limited affairs to settle procedural issues. But this session addressed the substance of the BWC, after many procedural questions had been resolved at an April meeting. (See ACT, January/February 2016.)

A U.S. soldier trains for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats during the Vigilant Guard 2016 exercise at Camp Johnson, Vermont, July 28. [Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Chelsea Clark/U.S. Air National Guard]The chairman of the preparatory committee, Ambassador György Molnár of Hungary, challenged the 111 participating countries to consider some “cross-cutting” issues before embarking on an article-by-article consideration of the treaty. Such consideration, usually done at the full review conference, was designed to focus governments on issues to facilitate their resolution in November. 

Western countries say that inter-sessional meetings held annually should provide more focused discussion and concrete results. They highlighted issues raised by rapid advances in science, such as the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, that can produce many benefits but might be abused to create biological weapons. They also stressed the importance of building capacity to detect and respond to deadly natural outbreaks such as Ebola, as well as to terrorist threats. 

Iran, speaking on behalf of nonaligned countries, focused on the importance of strengthening international cooperation and assistance as called for by Articles VII and X. Some nonaligned nations are seeking a standing committee to review technology transfer-related issues, including export denials, although there are differing views within the group. Discussion included specific proposals, such as an assistance database and codifying assistance request procedures. China and the nonaligned nations called for renewing work on an agreement on multilateral verification. Russia said that it would like such a protocol, but would not pursue it because it understands that the United States would not agree.

Many countries promoted strengthening the process of monitoring scientific and technical developments in order to address the rapidly changing field of biotechnology and emerging threats. The United States proposed a scientific and technology review process in which technical experts from states-parties provide specific expertise for each year’s work plan. Russia proposed a scientific advisory committee, which differs from the U.S. proposal with regard to composition. The Russian proposal would include 20 members appointed from the three regional groups of countries, whereas the U.S. proposal would be open to all countries. Three other proposals on the subject of science and technology were made by the United Kingdom; Finland, Norway and Sweden; and Spain. Switzerland is trying to find an agreement among all of them. 

Representatives of states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention met in Geneva August 8-12 to prepare for the eighth review conference, to be held November 7-25. [Photo credit: Jenifer Mackby]Russia noted that not all 175 states-parties have national legislation criminalizing the use of biological weapons and suggested closing the legal gaps through an international convention to suppress chemical and biological terrorism. The United Kingdom and United States countered that a number of comprehensive legal instruments exist and that they need to be adequately implemented. Iran proposed amending the BWC in order to explicitly cover a prohibition on the use of biological weapons. 

In connection with investigation of any alleged chemical weapons use, Russia proposed establishing an international mechanism under the convention, including mobile biomedical units. These units, modeled on Russian ones, would be used for rapid response to disease outbreaks and to investigate suspected weapons use. Russia suggested forming an open-ended working group to explore and possibly establish these units, a proposal supported by Belarus, China, and Cuba. Other delegations questioned the cost and capabilities and suggested that they might duplicate the efforts of the World Health Organization. Currently, the only method of investigating alleged use of biological weapons is by request to the UN secretary-general, but states are not obliged to cooperate.

Iran, on behalf of the nonaligned nations, and Russia criticized what they regard as discriminatory export controls—an allusion to the Australia Group, which coordinates national export licensing among its members to prevent proliferation of chemical or biological weapons. The UK noted that thousands of licenses were issued from 2011 to 2016 and very few were denied. China and Pakistan have proposed a mechanism under the convention to establish multilateral export controls and to review denials. They also proposed a code of conduct to prevent the abuse and misuse of bioscience and technology. Chile, Italy, Spain, and others had cosponsored papers in 2014 on a code of conduct to improve the custody of biological agents.

In addition, some countries called for strengthening the confidence-building measures that have been in place since 1986. Under this process, countries have been requested to submit annually to the United Nations information on national biodefense research programs, laboratories, outbreaks of infectious diseases, vaccine production, legislation, and publications. Each year, fewer than half of the BWC states-parties have participated in this undertaking. In order to increase participation, some countries have requested more clarity in the forms and assistance in completing them. 

Delegates also discussed possible peer-review mechanisms, voluntary visits and exchanges of information, ways to increase national implementation, and implementation of oversight of scientific research and education about the risks of dual-use activities. Nonaligned countries have stated that these measures would not substitute for legally binding verification measures.

The Biological Weapons Convention comes up for review in November. In Geneva, the states-parties debated what needs to be done to improve the treaty, which prohibits development and production of biological weapons.

North Korea Shifts on Denuclearization

September 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea has publicly redefined its denuclearization policy, a move that some experts say may have been intended as an overture to resume nuclear negotiations until the U.S. decision to sanction the North Korean leadership likely closed off any opportunity for new talks.

A July 6 statement by a spokesman for the North Korean government said that “the denuclearization being called for by [North Korea] is the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula and this includes the dismantlement of nukes in South Korea and its vicinity.”

A man in Seoul, South Korea, watches a news report September 15, 2015, on North Korea’s declaration that it had resumed normal operations at the Yongbyon nuclear complex and that the nation is improving the “quality and quantity” of its nuclear arsenal. [Photo credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images]North Korea is estimated to possess approximately six to eight plutonium-based warheads. South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, and the last U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea were withdrawn in 1991. 

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. State Department senior policy adviser to the special ambassador for talks with North Korea, said the statement marked a change from North Korea’s past characterizations of denuclearization, which stated that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear weapons only when countries such as the United States disarm.

Carlin, speaking at a July 13 press briefing hosted by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that the new position, which called only for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, is more practical and “clearly and very deliberately” lays out a definition of denuclearization similar to North Korea’s position in the 1990s, when the two Koreas signed a joint denuclearization agreement for the Korean peninsula. 

Yet, just hours after Pyongyang’s statement, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and several senior officials because of human rights violations. This was the first time that the United States directly targeted the North Korean leader. 

Adam Szubin, acting undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that action was taken to highlight Washington’s “condemnation of this regime’s abuses and our determination to see them stopped.” 

The sanctions imposed by the United States are a “dialogue killer,” said Joseph DeThomas, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, at the July 13 press briefing. Sanctioning Kim was a “major step” because states do not take lightly such a decision against a foreign leader, and it is unlikely that he would have been targeted personally if the United States was interested in negotiations at that time, DeThomas said. 

Pyongyang responded July 11 by saying in its state-run central news agency that it would cut off communication with the United States after Washington “impaired the dignity” of North Korea’s leadership by imposing sanctions. 

North Korea and the United States do not have diplomatic relations, but communicate via the so-called New York channel at the United Nations. North Korea said it cut off the channel after the United States refused to drop the sanctions. 

When asked about North Korea’s decision, State Department spokesman John Kirby said July 11 that the United States does not comment on the details of diplomatic exchanges, but he called on North Korea to “refrain from actions and rhetoric that only further raise tensions in the region.”

North Korea’s Conditions

In its July 6 statement, North Korea cited five specific demands for achieving denuclearization on the peninsula: public disclosure of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea, removal and verification that such weapons are not present on U.S. bases in South Korea, U.S. guarantees that it will not redeploy nuclear weapons in South Korea, U.S. assurances that it will not threaten or conduct a nuclear strike on North Korea, and withdrawal from South Korea of U.S. troops authorized to use nuclear weapons. 

North Korea said it would take “corresponding measures” if the United States satisfies its conditions. 

By invoking the names of past leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in the statement, Carlin said North Korea was signaling that this position comes from the highest authority and that Kim was putting himself behind denuclearization. 

Carlin said that there are clear similarities between these points and the 1992 joint denuclearization declaration between North Korea and South Korea and that the United States has met or generally agreed to meet the first four of the five North Korean demands. It is difficult to tell if North Korea’s offer will be completely abandoned or remain available for consideration after Pyongyang’s outrage about the sanctions dies down, Carlin said. 

IAEA Safeguards Report

Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), last month completed his yearly report on the application of IAEA safeguards in North Korea for the agency’s General Conference and Board of Governors meetings.

IAEA inspectors have not been in North Korea since 2009, but the agency continues to monitor Pyongyang’s nuclear activities through such means as satellite imagery and submits a report on any developments ahead of the IAEA General Conference, which is scheduled for Sept. 26-30.

According to the Aug. 19 report, there were no indications that the reactor at Yongbyon was operating from mid-October to early December 2015. The report noted that this time period “is sufficient for the reactor to have been de-fuelled and subsequently re-fuelled.” 

North Korea shut down the reactor in 2007, but restarted it in 2013. In the past, North Korea separated plutonium from the spent reactor fuel to provide fissile material for its nuclear warheads. 

The IAEA report also said that, from early 2016 to July 2016, there were “multiple indications consistent with the Radiochemical Laboratory’s operation.” 

The Radiochemical Laboratory was used in the past to reprocess spent fuel from the reactor at Yongbyon. If a full load of spent fuel from the reactor was reprocessed, it could yield enough separated plutonium for two to four nuclear warheads. 

The IAEA report called on North Korea to cooperate with the agency and resume full implementation of its safeguards agreement.

North Korea issued a statement redefining denuclearization, but new U.S. sanctions likely closed off any opportunity to test Pyongyang’s intentions, according to experts.

South Korea to Deploy U.S. Defense System

September 2016

By Kingston Reif and Kelsey Davenport

The United States and South Korea have agreed that the United States will deploy an advanced missile defense system on the Korean peninsula to counter North Korea, a plan that is drawing strong objections from China and vocal domestic opposition in South Korea. 

The two allies described the decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery “as a defensive measure to ensure the security” of South Korea and “to protect alliance military forces from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile threats,” according to the July 8 joint announcement of the agreement. Seoul’s aim is to have the system operational by the end of 2017.

South Koreans at the Seoul Railway Station watch a television report July 13 on the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to protect the South from North Korean missiles. [Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]Formal talks about deployment began in early February “in response to the evolving threat posed by North Korea,” according to the announcement. In January, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, which had a yield of about 10 kilotons. (See ACT, March 2016.) North Korea is also developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles with longer ranges and tested K-11 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on July 9 and Aug. 23. 

Pyongyang embarked on an accelerated testing schedule for its intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Musudan, this spring as well as undertaking further rocket-engine tests for an intercontinental ballistic missile. (See ACT, July/August 2016; May 2016.) It is likely that North Korea already has the capability to fit a nuclear warhead on its short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, although the reliability would be uncertain. (See ACT, June 2014.) 

Three days after the U.S.-South Korean announcement, North Korea’s military threatened to respond to the THAAD deployment with “physical response measures,” including “a ruthless retaliatory strike” against South Korea. 

The mobile, ground-based THAAD system is designed to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in the middle and end stages of flight. A THAAD battery consists of interceptor missiles, launchers, a radar, a fire control and communications system, and other support equipment. A battery can hold between 48 and 72 interceptors. The THAAD system has completed 13 successful flight and interception tests since 2006, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA). 

The THAAD system is intended to complement the Patriot system, which can intercept ballistic missiles at low altitudes and at short distances from its location, and the sea-based Aegis system, which can only intercept ballistic missiles outside the atmosphere. South Korea and the United States already deploy a mix of Patriot systems and Aegis ships in defense of the Korean peninsula. 

The battery will be operated by United States Forces Korea. The South Korean Defense Ministry said on July 13 that the battery would “better protect” one-half to two-thirds of South Korea’s citizens “from North Korean nuclear and missile threats.”

The defense ministry initially announced that the THAAD battery would be deployed at a military base in the southeastern county of Seongju, about 180 miles southeast of Seoul. But thousands of residents of Seongju county have demonstrated against the plan, citing concerns that the radar could pose health and environmental dangers and expressing frustration that the county was not consulted before the deployment decision. 

On Aug. 22, the defense ministry said it will review alternative locations to deploy the battery. 

China Opposes THAAD

Despite U.S. and South Korean claims that the THAAD battery will be focused solely on North Korea, China has sternly objected to the planned deployment. The decision “severely undermines China’s strategic security interests,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang in a July 11 press conference.

“China will take corresponding measures to safeguard its interests” in response to the deployment, Lu added. He did not specify what form such steps might take. 

Protesters outside the South Korean Defense Ministry in Seoul on July 13 denounce plans for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in Seongju county, about 180 miles southeast of the capital. [Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]

Chinese officials have said that the THAAD system’s radar could be configured to detect and track missiles launched from China, thereby increasing the capability of U.S. missile defenses against China. 

In an Aug. 11 press conference in Seoul, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the director of the MDA, said the THAAD deployment “will not be part of the wider missile defense network that” the agency “has developed and commanders around the world utilize.”

The U.S. missile defense system “is not designed against China,” he said. “We don’t defend against China as a threat.”

North Korea Tests Missiles

North Korea tested a medium-range ballistic missile in August that landed approximately 125 miles off the coast of Japan in an area Tokyo claims as its economic exclusion zone. 

In an Aug. 4 statement, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the test “an intolerable act of recklessness” and said North Korea’s missile activities are a serious threat to Japan.

The Nodong missile, a system North Korea has tested successfully on past occasions, was launched on Aug. 3 from the southwestern tip of the country. It traveled approximately 1,000 kilometers  (620 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan. A second missile was launched simultaneously, but exploded shortly after launch. These launches followed two Nodong tests in July that were successful but fell short of Japanese waters.

North Korea is prohibited from launching ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions. The Security Council met on Aug. 4 to discuss the launch, but did not issue a statement condemning the missile test due to disagreements over language in the statement. 

An official familiar with the discussions told Arms Control Today on Aug. 15 that China wanted language in the Security Council statement saying that any deployment of missile defenses aimed at North Korea would “escalate tensions.” The United States and other members objected.

North Korea’s test launch of a K-11 SLBM took place a day after the THAAD deployment announcement. The missile appears to have exited the water successfully, but exploded after gaining altitude.

North Korea tested another SLBM on Aug. 23 from a submarine based out of Sinpo shipyard in the northeast of the country. The missile flew approximately 500 kilometers before splashing down into the ocean between North Korea and Japan. Although it is unclear what objectives Pyongyang was attempting to achieve with the test, the launch seems to have been successful.

The United States plans to operate a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea by the end of 2017.

New Cruise Missiles to Cost $11 Billion

September 2016

UPDATED: September 2, 2016

UPDATED: December 12, 2016

By Kingston Reif

An updated U.S. Air Force estimate, approved by the Pentagon’s top acquisition official in July, puts the cost to design and build a fleet of new nuclear-capable cruise missiles at $10.8 billion, a source familiar with the program told Arms Control Today

The service prepared the estimate, which is in fiscal year 2016 constant dollars, in the spring in preparation for the program’s milestone A decision, a key early benchmark in the acquisition process for the weapon, according to the source. 

(UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, Arms Control Today has learned that this acquisition estimate is in "then-year dollars," which includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program, not constant dollars as previously reported.)

An unarmed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile maneuvers over the Utah Test and Training Range en route to its target September 22, 2014, during a simulated combat mission. [Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/U.S. Air Force]Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, approved that decision on July 29, the Air Force said later that day. The service declined requests from Arms Control Today to provide information on new program cost estimates.

An early draft estimate prepared by the Air Force in fiscal year 2015 projected the price to acquire the missile fleet at $8.3 billion. 

The service also announced on July 29 that it had begun soliciting proposals from the defense industry to design the new air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), known as the long-range standoff weapon, and a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

These programs are part of the Defense Department’s plan to modernize and replace elements of the U.S. nuclear triad, which department officials anticipate will cost $350-450 billion over the next 20 years and will put severe pressure on the overall military budget unless Congress provides additional funding. (See ACT, May 2016.)

The Air Force’s current ALCM is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52H bomber. Current Air Force plans call for the procurement of about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles to replace the current missile, which has been operational since 1986. (See ACT, June 2015.

The Air Force intends to award contracts to one or two companies for the long-range standoff weapon program in the summer of 2017, according to the service press release announcing the solicitation. The contractors will spend the next four and a half years completing a preliminary design, which will be followed by the selection of a sole contractor to further develop and produce the missiles. The first new missile is slated to be produced in 2026. 

As the Pentagon proceeds with its plans to replace the AGM-86B, the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is pursuing a life extension program for its warhead. The NNSA estimates that the cost of the program will be between $7.4-9.9 billion in “then-year dollars,” which includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program. The first refurnished warhead is scheduled for production in 2025. 

Pentagon Debates New ICBM Cost

The Air Force also plans to award up to two contracts in the summer of 2017 to design the replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM system, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent. 

But Bloomberg News reported on Aug. 18 that Kendall has yet to approve the milestone A decision for the program due to a gap of billions of dollars between the cost estimate prepared by the Air Force and an independent estimate prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, which provides the Defense Department with detailed analysis of the costs of major acquisition programs.

(UPDATE: The Air Force announced in a Sept. 1 press release that the Defense Department approved the milestone A decision for the ground based strategic deterrent on Aug. 23.)

In an Aug. 10 press conference at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the program “is not on hold” but that the department still needs to “get on the same page” regarding how to estimate the cost of the new missile system.

An early estimate prepared by the Air Force in February 2015 projected the cost to acquire 642 missiles and rebuild the existing Minuteman III infrastructure, including command and control systems, at $62.3 billion over the next 30 years in then-year dollars. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

In 2014 the Air Force projected the total life-cycle cost of the ground-based strategic deterrent at $159 billion (in fiscal year 2014 constant dollars) between fiscal years 2016 and 2075. (See ACT, April 2016.)

Navy Names New Sub Program 

On July 28, U.S. Naval Institute News reported that the first submarine in the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement program will be called the Columbia and that the program will now be called the Columbia-class program. 

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Alabama returns to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Washington, on May 14, following a patrol mission. The Navy plans to replace its 14 Ohio-class submarines with 12 new Columbia-class subs. [Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy]The Navy plans to replace its fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 new subs. In 2014 the service estimated that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035, will cost approximately $140 billion (in then-year dollars) to develop and build.

According to an informed source, the Navy in December 2010 projected the total life-cycle cost of the Columbia-class program to be $342 billion in then-year dollars through the 2080s. The source said the Navy prepared a second life-cycle estimate in 2014 that put the cost at $282 billion. The reduction in the life-cycle cost is attributable to such factors as a reduction in the average cost to buy the submarines, updated operations and maintenance costs, and revised inflation assumptions, according to the source. 

In a May 27 email to Arms Control Today, Lt. Kara Yingling, a Navy spokesperson, did not confirm the life-cycle estimates, but said the service is preparing updated cost estimates in preparation for the Columbia-class program’s milestone B acquisition decision, which is considered the formal start of a Pentagon acquisition program. That decision is scheduled to take place later this year, she said.

The Pentagon has raised the estimated cost for the new missiles slated to be produced in 2026.


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