"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
October 2016
Edition Date: 
Friday, September 30, 2016
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Stopping ‘Killer Robots’: Why Now Is the Time to Ban Autonomous Weapons Systems

October 2016

By Frank Sauer

Autonomous weapons systems have drawn widespread media attention, particularly since last year’s open letter signed by more than 3,000 artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics researchers warning against an impending “military AI arms race.”1

Since 2013, discussion of such weapons has been climbing the arms control agenda of the United Nations. They are a topic at the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly First Committee on disarmament and international security, but the main venue of the debate is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva.2 So far, CCW countries have convened for three informal meetings of experts on the topic and in December will decide whether to continue and deepen their deliberations by establishing a group of governmental experts next year.

A Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in May 2013. In April 2015, the strike-fighter-sized aircraft successfully conducted the first autonomous aerial refueling of an unmanned aircraft. (Photo credit: Erik Hildebrandt/U.S. Navy)Stigmatized as “killer robots” by opponents, autonomous weapons systems are widely regarded as harbingers of a paradigm shift in warfare. As described in a 2012 Pentagon document,3 “[Once] activated, [they] can seek, select and engage targets without intervention by a human operator.” In other words, these weapons would be able to make decisions on the use of lethal force without a human in the decision-making loop. The directive says such systems should allow for “appropriate levels of human judgment” over the use of lethal force, leaving open the question of what constitutes “appropriate.”

So far, only precursor systems and technology demonstrators exist. This makes autonomous weapons systems a candidate for preventive arms control.

This article clarifies what autonomous weapons systems are and lists the driving forces behind the push toward weapons autonomy. It reviews the resulting problems that render this technology a hotly debated arms control issue. After the CCW landscape has been charted, the article concludes by identifying four possible outcomes of the CCW process and pondering future arms control perspectives and policy recommendations.

The Basics

Some weapons systems used for defensive purposes already can identify and track incoming targets and engage them without a human pushing the metaphorical button. Deemed precursors to autonomous weapons systems, they can react to incoming missiles or mortar shells in cases in which the timing does not allow for human decision-making. The Phalanx Close-In Weapon System on Navy ships is one example for such a weapons system, Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system is another. 

Yet, these defensive systems are not the focus of the mainly forward-looking autonomous weapons systems debate. Juxtaposing automatic and autonomous systems is a helpful way to understand why. Defensive systems such as the Phalanx can be categorized as automatic. They are stationary or fixed on ships or trailers and designed to fire at inanimate targets. They just repeatedly perform preprogrammed actions and operate only within tightly set parameters and time frames in comparably structured and controlled environments. 

Autonomous weapons are distinguish-able from their precursors. They would be able to operate without human control or supervision in dynamic, unstructured, open environments, attacking a variety of targets. They would operate over an extended period of time after activation and would potentially be able to learn and adapt to their situations. To be fair, this juxtaposition is artificial and glosses over an important gray area by leaving aside the fact that autonomous functionality is a continuum. After all, automatic systems, targeting humans at borders or automatically firing back at the source of incoming munitions, already raise questions relevant to the autonomy debate.

There arguably is a tacit understanding in the expert community and among diplomats in Geneva that the debate’s main focus is on future, mobile weapons platforms equipped with onboard sensors, computers, and decision-making algorithms with the capability to seek, identify, track, and attack targets autonomously. The autonomy debate thus touches on but is not primarily concerned with existing automatic defensive systems. In fact, depending on how the CCW ends up defining autonomous weapons systems, it might be well within reason to exempt those from regulation or a possible preventive ban if their sole purpose is to protect human life by exclusively targeting incoming munitions.

Drivers of Autonomy

It is underwater and in the air—less cluttered environments—where autonomy in weapons systems is currently advancing most rapidly. The X-47B in the United States, the United Kingdom’s Taranis, and the French nEUROn project are examples of autonomy testing in unmanned aerial vehicles.4 This trend is driven by the prospect of various benefits.

•   Weapons autonomy removes the need for a control-and-communication link, which is vulnerable to disruption or capture and may reveal the system’s location and in which there is invariably some delay between the issuing of a command by the human operator and the execution of that command. Removing this latency generates a tactical advantage.

•   It has been argued that because autonomous systems do not know fear, stress, or overreactions, they might render warfare more humane and prevent some of the atrocities of war. Machines are not only devoid of negative human emotions, but they also lack a self-preservation instinct, so they could well delay returning fire, some say. They are supposed to allow for greater restraint and also better discrimination between civilians and combatants, resulting in an application of force in strict or stricter accordance with international humanitarian law.5

Problems With Autonomy

In light of these anticipated benefits, one might expect militaries to unequivocally welcome the introduction of autonomous weapons systems. Yet, their reputation remains mixed at best. For instance, there are multiple operational risks. The potential for high-tempo fratricide, much greater than at human intervention speeds, incentivizes militaries to retain humans in the chain of decision-making as a fail-safe mechanism.6 

Above and beyond such tactical concerns, these systems threaten to introduce a destabilizing factor at the strategic level. For one, autonomous weapons systems generate new possibilities for disarming surprise attacks. Small, stealthy, or extremely low-flying systems, or swarms, are difficult to detect and defend against. When nuclear weapons or strategic command-and-control systems are or are perceived to be put at greater risk, autonomous conventional capabilities end up causing instability at the strategic level. Further, trading algorithms at the stock market already provide cautionary tales of unforeseeable and costly algorithm interactions. Introducing autonomous systems into conflict runs the risk of generating similarly unexpected outcomes. The sequence of events developing at rapid speed from the interaction of autonomous systems or swarms of two adversaries could never be trained, tested, nor truly foreseen. An uncontrolled escalation from crisis to war is entirely within the realm of possibilities.7 

Human decision-making in armed conflict requires complex assessments to ensure a discriminate and proportionate application of military force in accordance with international humanitarian law. Not only are combatants and noncombatants often not clearly distinguishable, but weighing a potential risk to civilians or damage to civilian objects against the anticipated military advantage in the fog of war poses a challenge to even the most experienced of commanders. In the foreseeable future, it is doubtful that these processes can be replicated in software code; but if these systems cannot be designed to abide by international humanitarian law, the previously mentioned hope for them rendering war more humane is misguided.8 

A closely related aspect is that it remains unclear who would be legally accountable if civilians were unlawfully injured or killed by autonomous weapons systems, especially because targeting processes in modern militaries are such an immensely complex, strategic, multilevel endeavor. An artificially intelligent system tasked with autonomous targeting would thus not only need to replace various human specialists, creating what has become known as the “accountability gap” because a machine cannot be court-martialed, it would essentially require a human abdication of political decision-making.9 

Leaving military, legal, and political considerations aside moves a more fundamental problem into focus. From an ethical point of view, it is argued that autonomous weapons systems violate fundamental human values.10 Delegating the decision to kill a human to an algorithm in a machine, which is not responsible for its actions in any meaningful ethical sense, can arguably be understood to be an infringement on basic human dignity, representing what in moral philosophy is known as a malum in se, a wrong in itself. This peculiar consideration is reflected in the public’s deep concerns in the United States and internationally regarding autonomy in weapons systems.11

In sum, there are many reasons—military, legal, political, ethical—for engaging in preventive arms control measures regarding autonomous weapons systems.

The Need to Maintain Human Control Over Weapons

“Whether for legal, ethical or military-operational reasons, there is broad agreement on the need for human control over weapons and the use of force. However, it remains unclear whether human control at the stages of the development and the deployment of an autonomous weapon system is sufficient to overcome minimal or no human control at the stage of the weapon system’s operation—that is, when it independently selects and attacks targets. There is now a need to determine the kind and degree of human control over the operation of weapon systems that are deemed necessary to comply with legal obligations and to satisfy ethical and societal considerations.”

—Statement of the International Committee of the Red Cross,
at the meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems,
Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, in Geneva, April 11-16, 2016

CCW Process

The purpose of the CCW, to which 123 states are currently party, is to prohibit or restrict the use of certain conventional weapons that are considered excessively injurious or whose effects are indiscriminate. The CCW is a framework convention with a set of protocols that regulate specific types of weapons; Protocol IV, for instance, preventively banned blinding laser weapons.

Deliberations at the CCW are known to be notoriously slow and prone to failure. Protocol II on land mines, for example, failed to adequately address humanitarian concerns raised by anti-personnel mines, leading Canada and other governments to cooperate with nongovernmental organizations to work for a ban outside the CCW, culminating in the adoption of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, or Ottawa Treaty. CCW deliberations on cluster munitions failed in 2011 to produce an outcome, leaving the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, created outside CCW and UN auspices, as the sole international instrument to specifically regulate these weapons. 

Yet, so far autonomous weapons systems have been the subject of exceptionally dynamic talks and climbed the CCW agenda with unprecedented speed. The upcoming CCW fifth review conference in December 2016 provides states with an incentive to inject even more ambition into the process. Since 2013, 14 countries have called for a preventive ban on autonomous weapons systems, which could be concluded via a new CCW protocol. Notably, no country has vigorously defended or even argued for the development and deployment of autonomous weapons systems. Only two nations—Israel and the United States—have argued that such systems may offer certain benefits. 

On the one hand, it seems plausible that CCW states-parties have discovered their genuine interest in a development deemed to require urgent regulation and are keen to demonstrate the CCW’s capacity to act. On the other hand, the CCW has a fearsome reputation as a place where good ideas go to die a slow death. 

The civil society movement pushing for a legally binding prohibition on autonomous weapons systems within the CCW framework is organized and spearheaded by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of more than 61 groups in 26 countries coordinated by Human Rights Watch. Its members include Amnesty International, the UK group Article 36, and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, a small network of experts and professionals with recognized academic and practical knowledge of AI, robotics research, and arms control. The campaign goal is to prohibit the development, production, and use of autonomous weapons systems in order to retain meaningful human control over life-and-death decisions in battle, policing, and other circumstances.

A robot mascot for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in London April 2013. The group is seeking a pre-emptive international ban on autonomous weapons systems that could identify and attack targets without human intervention. (Photo credit: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)The military relevance of this envisioned technical capability, however, is greater than that of blinding lasers, and thus this comparison case of a successful prohibition carries only so far. The dual-use issue is more complex as well. Research on autonomous robots is underway in countless university laboratories and large and small companies due to the massive commercial interest in the field. The integration of commercial off-the-shelf technology has become a driver of developments in the field of military technology, and AI and robotics have officially been declared cornerstones of the U.S. military’s “third offset” strategy12 to counter rising powers. Therefore, can a preventive ban be achieved within the CCW framework?

Perspectives for Arms Control 

The human brain needs time for complex evaluation and decision-making processes, time that it cannot be denied in the interaction between human and machine if the human role is to remain relevant, in other words, if the decision-making process is merely to be supported, not dominated, by the machine. Establishing where to draw that line is shaping up to be the key challenge in Geneva. Arriving at a decision in that regard would also mean producing the first definition of autonomous weapons systems in terms of international law.

At the CCW meetings, the almost mantra-like repetition of a shared commitment to retain “meaningful human control” over the use of force by states-parties and civil society actors has become pivotal. Keeping weapons systems under meaningful human control and banning autonomous weapons systems are two sides of the same coin.

The concept of meaningful human control introduced at the end of 2013 by Article 36, a member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, has since been taken up by governments. It goes beyond the “appropriate levels of human judgment” approach specified by the 2012 Pentagon directive. After all, the absence of human judgment might end up being deemed appropriate in some circumstances. Thus, the argument that human control over life-and-death decisions must always be in place in a significant or meaningful fashion, as more than just a mindless pushing of a button by a human in response to a machine-processed stream of information. 

According to current practice, a human weapons operator must have sufficient information about the target and sufficient control over the weapon and must be able to assess its effects in order to be able to make decisions in accordance with international law. At the same time, modern weapons systems are already highly computerized and automated, a trend that is only accelerating. So, determining how much human judgment can be replaced by algorithms before human control is no longer “meaningful” involves various technical, legal, ethical, and political considerations.

In light of this, four possible outcomes can be predicted for the CCW process. The first would be a legally binding and preventive multilateral arms control agreement derived by consensus in the CCW and thus involving the major stakeholders, the outcome referenced as “a ban.” Considering the growing number of states-parties calling for a ban and the large number of governments calling for meaningful human control and expressing considerable unease with the idea of autonomous weapons systems, combined with the fact that no government is openly promoting their development, this seems possible. It would require mustering considerable political will. Verification and compliance for a ban, as well as for weaker restrictions, would then require creative arms control solutions. After all, with full autonomy in a weapons system eventually coming down to merely flipping a software switch, how can one tell if a specific system at a specific time is not operating autonomously? A few arms control experts are already wrapping their heads around these questions.13

The second outcome would be restrictions short of a ban. The details of such an agreement are impossible to predict, but it is conceivable that governments could agree, for example, to limit the use of autonomous weapons systems, such as permitting their use against materiel only.

The third would be a declaratory, nonbinding agreement on best practices. Such a code of conduct would likely emphasize compliance with existing international humanitarian law and rigorous weapons review processes, in accordance with Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions.

Finally, there may be no tangible result, perhaps with one of the technologically leading countries setting a precedent by fielding autonomous weapons systems. That would certainly prompt others to follow, fueling an arms race. In light of some of the most advanced standoff weapons, such as the U.S. Long Range Anti-Ship Missile or the UK Brimstone, each capable of autonomous targeting during terminal flight phase, one might argue that the world is already headed for such an autonomy arms race.

Implementing autonomy, which mainly comes down to software, in systems drawn from a vibrant global ecosystem of unmanned vehicles in various shapes and sizes is a technical challenge, but doable for state and nonstate actors, particularly because so much of the hardware and software is dual use. In short, autonomous weapons systems are extremely prone to proliferation. An unchecked autonomous weapons arms race and the diffusion of autonomous killing capabilities to extremist groups would clearly be detrimental to international peace, stability, and security. 

This underlines the importance of the current opportunity for putting a comprehensive, verifiable ban in place. The hurdles are high, but at this point, a ban is clearly the most prudent and thus desirable outcome. After all, as long as no one possesses them, a verifiable ban is the optimal solution. It stops the currently commencing arms race in its tracks, and everyone reaps the benefits. A prime goal of arms control would be fulfilled by facilitating the diversion of resources from military applications toward research and development for peaceful purposes—in the fields of AI and robotics no less, two key future technologies.

This situation presents a fascinating and instructive case for arms control in the 21st century. The outcome of the current arms control effort regarding autonomous weapons systems can still range from an optimal preventive solution to a full-blown arms race. Although this process holds important lessons, for instance regarding the valuable input that epistemic communities and civil society can provide, it also raises vexing questions, particularly if and how arms control will find better ways for tackling issues from a qualitative rather than quantitative angle. 

The autonomous weapons systems example points to a future in which dual-use reigns supreme and numbers are of less importance than capabilities, with the weapons systems to be regulated, potentially disposable, 3D-printed units with their intelligence distributed in swarms. Consequently, more thinking is needed about how arms control can target specific practices rather than technologies or quantifiable military hardware.

‘We Will Not Delegate Lethal Authority...’

“We will not delegate lethal authority for a machine to make a decision. The only time we’ll delegate [such] authority [to a machine] is in things that go faster than human reaction time, like cyber or electronic warfare…. We might be going up against a competitor who is more willing to delegate authority to machines than we are and, as that competition unfolds, we’ll have to make decisions on how we can best compete. It’s not something that we have fully figured out, but we spend a lot of time thinking about it.”

—U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work,
during a Washington Post forum “Securing Tomorrow,”
March 30, 2016

Lastly, some policy recommendations are in order. The United States “will not delegate lethal authority for a machine to make a decision,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said in March. Yet, he added that such self-restraint may be unsustainable if an authoritarian rival acts differently. “It’s not something that we have fully figured out, but we spend a lot of time thinking about it,” Work said.14 The delegation of lethal authority to weapons systems will not inexorably happen if CCW states-parties muster the political will not to let it happen. States can use the upcoming CCW review conference in December to go above and beyond the recommendation from the 2016 meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems and agree to establish an open-ended group of governmental experts with a strong mandate to prepare the basis for new international law, preferably via a ban.

Further, a prohibition on autonomous weapons systems should be pursued at the domestic level. Most countries actively engaged in research and development on such systems have not yet formulated policies or military doctrines. Member states of the European Union especially should be called to action.

Even if the CCW process were to fizzle out, like-minded states could cooperate and, in conjunction with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, continue pursuing a ban through other means. The currently nascent social taboo against machines autonomously making kill decisions meets all the requirements for spawning a “humanitarian security regime.”15 

Autonomous weapons systems would not be the first instance when an issue takes an indirect path through comparably softer social international norms and stigmatization to a codified arms control agreement. In other words, even if technology were to overtake the current process, arms control remains as possible as it is sensible.


1.   Future of Life Institute, “Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter from AI and Robotics Researchers,” July 28, 2015, http://futureoflife.org/open-letter-autonomous-weapons/

2.   Frank Sauer, “Autonomous Weapons Systems: Humanising or Dehumanising Warfare?” Global Governance Spotlight, No. 4 (2014), http://icrac.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/GGS_04-2014_Sauer_2014-06-13_en.pdf.

3.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” Directive No. 3000.09, November 21, 2012. 

4.   Frank Sauer and Niklas Schörnig, “Killer Drones: The Silver Bullet of Democratic Warfare?” Security Dialogue, Vol. 43, No. 4 (August 2012): 363-380.

5.   Ronald C. Arkin, “The Case for Ethical Autonomy in Unmanned Systems,” Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 9, No. 4 (2010): 332-341.  

6.   Paul D. Scharre, “Autonomous Weapons and Operational Risk,” Center for a New American Security, February 2016, http://www.cnas.org/sites/default/files/publications-pdf/CNAS_Autonomous-weapons-operational-risk.pdf.  

7.   Jürgen Altmann and Frank Sauer, “Speed Kills! Why We Need to Hit the Brakes on ‘Killer Robots,’” International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), 2016, http://icrac.net/2016/04/speed-kills-why-we-need-to-hit-the-brakes-on-killer-robots

8.   Noel E. Sharkey, “The Evitability of Auto-nomous Robot Warfare,” International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 94, No. 886 (Summer 2012): 787-799, https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/review/2012/irrc-886-sharkey.pdf

9.   Heather M. Roff, “The Strategic Robot Problem: Lethal Autonomous Weapons in War,” Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2014): 211-227.

10.   Peter Asaro, “On Banning Autonomous Weapon Systems: Human Rights, Automation, and the Dehumanization of Lethal Decision-Making,” International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 94, No. 886 (Summer 2012): 687-709. 

11.   Charli Carpenter, “Beware the Killer Robots: Inside the Debate Over Autonomous Weapons,” Foreign Affairs, July 3, 2013, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139554/charli-carpenter/beware-the-killer-robots#cid=soc-twitter-at-snapshot-beware_the_killer_robots-000000; Open RoboEthics Initiative, “The Ethics and Governance of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems: An International Public Opinion Poll,” November 9, 2015, http://www.openroboethics.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/ORi_LAWS2015.pdf.

12.   The so-called first offset was the use of nuclear deterrence against the large conventional forces of the Soviet Union starting in the 1950s, and the second offset in the 1970s and 1980s was the fielding of precision munitions and stealth technologies to counter the air and ground forces of adversaries. The third offset looks to innovation and emerging technologies, such as AI, to retain an advantage against adversaries. See Robert Work, “The Third U.S. Offset Strategy and Its Implications for Partners and Allies” (speech, Washington, DC, January 28, 2015), http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/606641/the-third-us-offset-strategy-and-its-implications-for-partners-and-allies.

13.   Mark Gubrud and Jürgen Altmann, “Compliance Measures for an Autonomous Weapons Convention,” ICRAC Working Paper, No. 2 (May 2013), http://icrac.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Gubrud-Altmann_Compliance-Measures-AWC_ICRAC-WP2-2.pdf.

14.   See “David Ignatius and Pentagon’s Robert Work Talk About New Technologies to Deter War,” The Washington Post, video, March 30, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/postlive/david-ignatius-and-pentagons-robert-work-on-efforts-to-defeat-isis-latest-tools-in-defense/2016/03/30/0fd7679e-f68f-11e5-958d-d038dac6e718_video.html.

15.   Denise Garcia, “Humanitarian Security Regimes,” International Affairs, Vol. 91 No. 1 (January 2015): 55-75.

Frank Sauer is a senior research fellow and lecturer at Bundeswehr University in Munich. He is the author of Atomic Anxiety: Deterrence, Taboo and the Non-Use of U.S. Nuclear Weapons (2015) and a member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

Autonomous weapons systems, capable of functioning without intervention by a human operator, are a candidate for preventive arms control.

An Insider’s View of Nuclear Weapons Modernization

October 2016

By Don Cook

Although the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is safe and secure today, technological advances from the research and development portion of the Stockpile Stewardship Program have shown that improvements in safety and security can be achieved by incorporating more advanced technologies than those available during weapons manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The necessity to ensure reliability as systems age is clear. Automobiles with a comparable average age as the weapons in the stockpile (29 years) have lower reliability today than when they were produced, if they are even still on the road. Rubber and plastic degrade and become brittle, metal corrodes, and connections that were once tight become loose. In undertaking weapons life extension programs (LEPs), often referenced as weapons modernization,1 the emphasis is on returning the weapons to their original level of reliability, which, although classified, was very high. 

The last B53 thermonuclear bomb was dismantled at the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas, in 2011. The nine-megaton weapon, 600 times the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was carried aboard U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers on alert during the 1960s and remained in active service until 1997. (Photo credit: National Nuclear Security Administration)When nuclear testing ended in 1992, the United States had recently completed production of many new nuclear weapons during the Reagan modernization of the 1980s. The warheads that remain in the current stockpile were young, with an average age of six years. Today, however, the United States has the oldest stockpile it has ever had and the smallest stockpile since the Eisenhower administration, reduced by more than 85 percent from the Cold War peak. The intent of the LEPs is not to introduce new weapons; the programs are focused on extending the life of current U.S. nuclear weapons while improving safety and security and maintaining reliability. 

Formulation of the LEP strategy was guided by the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Congressionally-mandated comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, strategy, and force posture for the next five to 10 years. The 2010 NPR Report said, “By pursuing a sound Stockpile Management Program for extending the life of U.S. nuclear weapons, we can ensure a safe, secure, and effective deterrent without the development of new nuclear warheads or further nuclear testing.” Further, it states, LEPs “will only use nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”2

Intensive study from 2011 to 2014 by the government’s Nuclear Weapons Council and its constituent elements representing the military commands, elements of the Department of Defense, and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) resulted in broad agreement on a national strategy for comprehensive extension of the life of U.S. nuclear warheads. This is labeled the “3+2 strategy.”3

In accordance with the NPR and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, the United States will consolidate the number of nuclear weapon types and reduce the overall size of its stockpile. The 3+2 strategy lays out a path for reducing the number of nuclear weapon types from 12 to five. Of the five types, two will be air-delivered weapons (one bomb type and one cruise missile type), and three will be interoperable warheads that can be deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This strategy will take 30-plus years to implement fully. 

Implementing the Strategy

The first implementation element of the 3+2 strategy is the B61-12 LEP. The B61-12, now in its fifth year of full-scale engineering development, will consolidate four variants of the B-61 bomb and will improve the safety and security of the oldest weapons system in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The LEP is centered on the strategic bomb capability, balancing greater accuracy provided by a modern tail kit with a substantial reduction in yield, with no overall change in military requirements or characteristics. The NNSA is accountable for the nuclear ordnance (the bomb body) while the Air Force is accountable for the integrated tail kit.

The B61-12 was recently approved to move into the production engineering phase and is currently planned for a first production unit in fiscal year 2020, consistent with the conclusion of the LEP for the W76-1 SLBM warhead at the Pantex assembly plant in Texas in fiscal year 2019. The B61 remains a key element of the air-delivered leg of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and is a key weapons system in the extended nuclear deterrent covering U.S. allies. Once the B61-12 LEP is completed over roughly a four-year period and confidence is gained with B61-12 weapons in service, the B83—the last megaton-class weapon in the arsenal—will be retired. The result is (1) a reduction of the number of bombs by a factor of two, (2) the removal of a megaton-class weapons system, (3) a reduction in enriched uranium and plutonium of more than 80 percent in the bomb portion of the air leg, and (4) a reduction in overall destructive power by the same amount (80 percent).

The 3+2 strategy calls for a replacement of the current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The Nuclear Weapons Council has narrowed options under consideration for the nuclear package. Given the investment in development of modern non-nuclear components for the B61-12 LEP, it makes economic sense to reuse and reapply as much of that component set as possible to the ALCM replacement. Current schedules within the nuclear security enterprise would allow movement of a life-extended cruise missile warhead to follow the B61-12 in manufacturing and assembly at Pantex, with a first production unit in the fiscal year 2025-2027 time frame. 

Consolidation of the four present ballistic systems into three interoperable systems will enable an eventual reduction in the number of weapons retained as a hedge against technical failure. In today’s stockpile, if the United States experiences a technical problem in a bomb, cruise missile warhead, or ballistic missile warhead type, there can be a period of time when one of two elements in one leg of the deterrent triad is “out of commission” while the problem is solved. In the future, with two or three types of warheads available for insertion into ICBM or SLBM aeroshells, intraleg technical hedging will be possible. This capability has been shown to remove the need for a significant part of the technical hedge, but only when fully implemented.

The NPR Report recommended initiating a “study of LEP options for the W-78 ICBM warhead, including the possibility of using the resulting warhead also on SLBMs to reduce the number of warhead types.”4 In 2011 a concept study was initiated, focusing on the use of common components, adaptable architectures, and interoperability between ICBM and SLBM platforms.

A budgetary decision made in 2014, supported by a technical assessment from the stockpile surveillance program, deferred further work on the interoperable weapons for five years. In the interim, increased emphasis was given to a new arming, fusing, and firing unit for the W88 warhead. That effort was already in full-scale engineering development in 2014 and was expanded to include replacement of the conventional high explosive component in order to extend the weapon’s lifetime by an additional 10 to 15 years. The W88 Alt 370 will form the basis of the arming, fusing, and firing unit for the current W88 and W87 systems and for the first interoperable warhead, currently designated as the W78/88-1. 

The issue of conventional high explosives (CHE) versus insensitive high explosives (IHE) in nuclear weapons is a factor in life extension efforts. The latter type are powerful explosives that have improved safety characteristics because they are remarkably insensitive to high temperatures, shock, and impact. It has been an objective to move from CHE to IHE in the course of weapons life extensions. All of the air leg is already based on IHE, but progress remains to be made in ballistic systems. Why is this important? Fundamentally, there is no single greater improvement in weapons safety than moving to IHE. Because the energy content per unit of mass of IHE is just 70 percent that of CHE, however, the IHE takes up more space, and IHE-based weapons must have lower yields than CHE-based weapons in order to fit into existing aeroshells. U.S. Strategic Command and the other entities within the Nuclear Weapons Council made the decision at the outset of the work on interoperable weapons to accept a reduction in weapons yield in order to get the safety advantage. 

Recent Actions to Reduce Nuclear Weapons Yield

Reduction of nuclear weapons yield, made possible by improvements in accuracy or method of delivery, has been a decades-long trend for nuclear weapons planners. Although several reductions have been made in the context of arms control agreements, some have been made unilaterally by the United States in the context of changing security considerations. All of these final actions occurred during the Obama administration.

• The decision to remove multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) from the Minuteman III missiles was made in 2010. This action reduced the number of weapons on each missile, within a fixed set of missiles, by up to a factor of three. More recently, the decision on force structure reduced the number of armed Minuteman III missiles from 450 to 400.

• The last W62 warhead unit was dismantled at the Pantex plant in 2010. When the decision to retire the MX missile was made in 2004, the W62 warheads mounted on the Minuteman III missile were replaced by fewer W87 warheads, which had been mounted on the MX, reducing the explosive power carried on each missile. This was seen as a step forward in safety because the W87 uses insensitive high explosives, whereas the W62 used the more volatile conventional high explosives.

• The last B53 unit was dismantled at Pantex in 2011. The replacement of the B53 gravity bomb by the B61-11 earth penetrator bomb in 1998 removed a now unclassified nine-megaton weapon and replaced it with a much smaller yield weapon, which allowed similar targets to be held at risk because of its earth-penetrating capability.

• The last W80-0 unit was dismantled at Pantex in 2013, removing an entire weapons system and not replacing it with anything else.

Weapons Numbers

Reductions in deployed nuclear weapons and delivery platforms are being made bilaterally under the New START. Two significant decisions made in presidential approval of the NPR were the retirement of the W80-0 warheads for submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) and the de-MIRVing of the ICBM fleet, that is, eliminating multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles from each missile. These decisions reduced the number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal and the overall destructive power of the U.S. deterrent by a substantial amount.

One argument advanced against the current LEP plan is that the number of weapons of a specific type should be reduced first, then the remaining weapons should be life extended. In theory, this would work, but it does not work in practice. The reason is that there is insufficient reliability in weapons as they age, and a larger number of “technical hedge” weapons must be retained, just for having the parts to cannibalize to rebuild other weapons. An example is that, in 2000, just 12 years after the W88 weapons system (the most modern one) had entered service, more than 90 percent of the parts were no longer available. For that reason, weapons programs execute a “life of program” procurement, typically sufficient to supply parts from the strategic reserve for up to 25 years. Now, the average age of weapons is 29 years, and replacement parts are not available.

It is only once that an LEP has been completed and field implementation has demonstrated reliability in service, typically two to four years, that there is sufficient confidence to permit retirement and disassembly of the units that the life-extended ones replace. In other words, reduction in weapons numbers comes as a direct result of the LEPs, not instead of them. 

In addition, as the engineering design and production phases of the LEPs progress, the number of weapons that actually go through the process is reduced substantially. Although this depends most heavily on military planning requirements and arms control agreements, the record is clear: By the time the W76-1 LEP is completed at the end of 2019, the number of W76 units in the stockpile, although classified, will have been reduced by a substantial amount. Because the yield of the units was not changed, the overall system yield (that is, the total yield of all weapons of that type) will have been reduced by the same amount. Furthermore, by the time the B61-12 LEP is completed, near the end of 2025, fewer than half of the number of B61 gravity bombs will be in the stockpile. That alone would reduce the overall system yield by half. Yet, because the B61-12 delivery accuracy will be better than that of the current systems, the yield of the B61-12 units will be reduced, preserving the military effectiveness but reducing the amount of special nuclear material needed to produce the required yield. 

Also, as confidence in the B61-12 system was increased in the early phases of the LEP, the decision was made that the earlier planned LEP for the B83 weapon was not needed and that system would be retired as life-extended B61 units entered service and proved their reliability in service deployment. That decision will remove the last of the “megaton-class” weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Collectively, these decisions reduce the amount of special nuclear material in the bomb leg of the deterrent by more than 80 percent, and the overall destructive power of the bomb leg will be reduced by the same amount. Counting numbers of weapons alone is inadequate to depict the reduction in the overall destructive power of the U.S. stockpile.

Sandia Labs mechanical engineer Ryan Schultz adjusts a microphone for an acoustic test on a B61-12 bomb system on October 30, 2014. The unit is surrounded by banks of speakers that expose it to sound pressure at 131 decibels, similar to a jet engine. (Photo credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs)

Numbers Versus Yield

The arms control community understandably has been focused on the reduction in weapons numbers, but less attention has been paid to the associated reduction in weapons yield, or overall destructive power of the stockpile. This has become an issue of debate, particularly over concerns expressed by some in the arms control community that lower yields, coupled with advances in delivery systems improving precision, speed, and stealth, would have the undesired effect of making nuclear weapons more “usable”5 and, further, that if a weapon is more useable, it is more likely to be used. Yet, I believe, a lower-yield, more accurate U.S. weapon constitutes a better deterrent specifically because it will be regarded by an adversary as more usable and that the likelihood of weapons use is, therefore, lower, not higher. This has certainly been a hotly debated issue for the B61-12 LEP.6 

Given the facts that following the W76-1 and B61-12 LEPs, the number of warheads of each type will have been reduced by more than a factor of two and that the B61-12 LEP will have enabled the B83 retirement and reduced the overall destructive power of the air leg by 80 percent, why has the arms control community not been encouraged by the programs? Why focus only on the numbers, rather than the numbers and the yield? The Obama administration and the president have received insufficient credit by the arms control community for the important decisions made. 

Moreover, why is the arms control community not taking credit for having urged the administration to go in this direction? My experience is that points made by the arms control community have usually been good ones and ones to which I paid attention. It has been argued that President Barack Obama has reduced the stockpile by smaller amounts than prior, Republican presidents. Yet, it is always easier for a Republican president to make arms reductions because the Democrats will cross party lines to support that. 

Another fact, articulated in the 2010 NPR Report completed by the Obama administration, is the de-MIRVing of the ICBM fleet. That single decision reduced the yield of the sum of the weapons carried by each of the 450 missiles (400 after New START force structure implementation) by a factor of up to three. That reduction is to be completed by February 2018.

In the aggregate, the total destructive power of the U.S. arsenal is shrinking faster than simply the number of nuclear weapons. It is important that the arms control community understand this and discuss the details. The arms control community can be most helpful in taking the next steps in arms control with regard to nuclear weapons in three areas.

1. Pay attention to weapons yields along with numbers of weapons, and advocate a reduction in yields and a reduction in the overall destructive power of the stockpiles of the United States, Russia, and China rather than advocating against lower weapons yields.

2. Recognize and support the U.S. direction of “getting out of the megaton business” and advocate that Russia and China take similar steps.

3. Advocate an extension of the New START that includes all nuclear weapons, both strategic and nonstrategic, and that permits Russia and the United States to make their own decisions on the relative balance between the two types, within the same fixed ceiling on weapons numbers.

A continuing emphasis on weapon dismantlements and component disassemblies is needed. During the Obama administration, more than 2,000 nuclear weapons have been dismantled, and Congress approved the president’s fiscal 2016 budget request to accelerate the dismantlement rate by 20 percent. As the arms control community knows, weapons plans always can change but disassemblies are irreversible.


1.   Kingston Rief, “U.S. Nuclear Modernization Programs,” Arms Control Association, September 2016, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/USNuclearModernization.

2.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, pp. 7, 39, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/2010_Nuclear_Posture_Review_Report.pdf (hereinafter NPR Report).

3.   National Nuclear Security Administration, “Fiscal Year 2016 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” March 2015, pp. 1-7, 1-8, https://nnsa.energy.gov/sites/default/files/FY16SSMP_FINAL 3_16_2015_reducedsize.pdf.

4.   NPR Report, p. 39.

5.   William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy,” The New York Times, January 11, 2016.

6.   Hans Kristensen, “The B61 Life-Extension Program: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes,” Federation of American Scientists, June 2011, https://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/publications1/IssueBrief_B61-12.pdf.

Don Cook served in the Obama administration as deputy administrator for defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration from June 2010 through July 2015. He was managing director and CEO of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the United Kingdom from 2006 through 2009 following work at Sandia National Laboratories from 1977 through 2005.

The total destructive power of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is shrinking faster than simply the declining number of weapons, and it is important that the arms control community understand this and discusses the details...

Looking Back: Compliance Versus Bargaining - An Implication of the Iran Nuclear Deal

October 2016

By George Perkovich

The Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), passes a milestone this month, which invites thinking about some of the agreement’s implications. One year ago, October 18, 2015, was “adoption day,”1 the date on which the accord came into effect and participants began taking steps necessary to implement their commitments.

Among other things, the negotiations that produced the agreement showed a dynamic that may affect how states approach future proliferation conflicts and the potential for resolving them diplomatically. The issue is whether a proliferation dispute is framed as a matter of compliance with rules or as a matter of bargaining for a fair deal instead. Compliance and fair bargaining need not be mutually exclusive concepts and processes. If rules are fair, enforcing compliance with them can be fair too. In international politics, however, all states do not necessarily perceive all rules to be fair, nor do states always agree on the fairness of proposed ways of enforcing compliance with rules.

Iranians show support for Iran’s nuclear activities at a demonstration outside the Tehran Research Reactor on November 23, 2014. Under the nuclear accord, Iran agreed to slightly irradiate fuel plates, before reactor use, to prevent later processing to make highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. (Photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and, perhaps, Russia and China saw the Iran case primarily as a compliance problem. Iran broke the rules of the nonproliferation regime, specifically International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and disclosure requirements. The IAEA and subsequently the UN Security Council issued binding requirements of transparency and confidence building, including a demand that Iran “suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.”2 Iran was not meeting these requirements. Thus, the international community continued to pressure Iran with sanctions until it complied.

Iran could not effectively dismiss the concept of compliance, but Iranian officials sought to portray the dispute as a matter of fairness or justice. They said Iran had no choice but to conduct illicit nuclear activities because the United States and Israel were illegally sabotaging Iran’s declared activities. They insisted that all countries have a “right” to enrich uranium3 and the United States and its allies were engaged in neocolonial nuclear repression. Iran also argued that the nuclear-weapon states had failed to live up to their obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to eliminate nuclear arsenals and that they frequently exhibited double standards in choosing when, where, and how to apply nonproliferation rules. 

The six countries negotiating with Iran, known as the P5+1, were correct that compliance was and is at the heart of the diplomatic struggle with Iran. Civilization and international security are advanced by the creation and enforcement of rules to regulate technologies and activities that can threaten peace and security. The NPT is the foundation of a rules-based global nuclear order. Therefore, it is vital to enforce compliance with rules derived from the NPT. 

Yet, the international system generally lacks judicial and enforcement mechanisms that are as legitimate and effective as those in well-governed states. The IAEA admirably performs some important functions in the rules-based system, but it does not have clear enforcement authority. The actions of the IAEA Board of Governors can be subject to the exertions of major powers and resistance by dissident states for reasons that are germane and meritorious or not. The UN Security Council is the entity that is expected to mobilize international power in response to violations of NPT-related rules when the IAEA reports violations to it. The Security Council has the authority to enforce mandates regarding international peace and security. Enforcement most commonly takes the form of political demands and sanctions. Military action can be the ultimate means of enforcing rules, and in the international system, the Security Council is supposed to be the authorizer of legitimate uses of force. Yet, the council is a highly politicized body, and the five permanent, veto-wielding members enjoy disproportionate influence within it. As a result, the council is often inefficient or less than just in catalyzing or withholding international action, particularly the use of force. 

In sum and hardly shocking, disputes over questions of nuclear rules and their enforcement are subject to the politics that flow from the distribution of power within the international system. In practice, this makes it difficult to separate compliance with rules from debates over fairness.

The tensions inherent here are exacerbated by the fact that the NPT is based on “bargains” that have been unevenly and inadequately fulfilled. Some states argue that the treaty’s Article IV promise of nuclear cooperation in return for nonproliferation is not fulfilled. These states feel that restrictions on access to nuclear technology continue to grow tighter, whereas the “sacrifices” that nuclear-weapon states are supposed to make are unfulfilled. 

Excerpt from the Statement by President Obama on the Adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, October 18, 2015

Today marks an important milestone toward preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and ensuring its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful going forward.... Today, Iran begins to take the steps necessary to implement its JCPOA commitments, including removing thousands of centrifuges and associated infrastructure, reducing its enriched uranium stockpile from approximately 12,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms, and removing the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor and filling it with concrete so that it cannot be used again, among other steps. These next steps will allow us to reach the objectives we set out to achieve over the course of nearly two years of tough, principled diplomacy and will result in cutting off all four pathways Iran could use to develop enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. I am confident in the extraordinary benefits to our national security and the peace and security of the world that come with the successful implementation of the JCPOA.

I have directed that the heads of all relevant executive departments and agencies of the United States begin preparations to implement the U.S. commitments in the JCPOA, in accordance with U.S. law, including providing relief from nuclear-related sanctions as detailed in the text of the JCPOA once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified that Iran has completed all of its nuclear steps. We will also be closely monitoring Iran’s adherence to its commitments, working closely with the IAEA and the other JCPOA participants, to ensure Iran fully fulfills each and every one of its commitments.

Many states and civil society groups have reason to believe that Article VI represents a bargain of nonproliferation in return for the eventual elimination of all nuclear arsenals.4 This was affirmed in the 1995 decision to extend the NPT indefinitely. Many argue that, despite the dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, the world’s nuclear-armed states are not seriously committed to pursuing the abolition of these weapons. The ongoing modernization of the Chinese, Russian, and U.S. nuclear arsenals strengthens this argument. Few if any states argue that the world would be more secure without the NPT, but widespread dissatisfaction exists over how its terms have been interpreted and enforced. 

The Iran case brought these divergent perceptions of fairness and compliance to the center of international politics. The nuclear-weapon states argue either that they have fulfilled their NPT obligations or that the obligations are not what Iran and others say they are. Although the nuclear-weapon states’ arguments have merit, it is also the case that the nuclear-weapon states would resist allowing others the authority to judge their compliance, for example with Article VI’s call for disarmament. 

Other examples of double standards, selective enforcement, and perceived unfairness include differences in the ways that major powers treat India, Israel, and Pakistan. These three states did not sign the NPT, so they did not forgo the “right” to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet, different major powers have treated each of them differently, most notably when the United States, backed by France and Russia, pushed the Nuclear Suppliers Group to exempt India from nuclear trade restrictions.5 As a group, the three non-NPT states have been treated more indulgently than Iran, Iraq, and other states that did sign the NPT. There are sound legal and strategic reasons for treating states that have legally agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons differently from those that did not sign the NPT, but this does not alleviate the sense that the nuclear order is unfair. 

The competing frames of compliance versus fairness have important implications that are not often analyzed. If fairness is central, the notion of negotiating and bargaining among parties with equal standing informs how one sees the contest. Compromise emerges naturally as an acceptable outcome. In the compliance frame, however, the contest is not among actors with equal standing, but rather is an effort by authorities to compel a deviant actor to comply. Negotiation and compromise are not obviously required. We do not pay a violator of rules to correct its behavior and comply; we compel it. In one frame, fairness involves give and take. In the other, fairness is simply compliance.

The first meeting of the Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria, on October 19, 2015. The group was established to monitor implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action curtailing Iran’s nuclear activities. (Photo credit: Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images)The tension between compliance and fairness will play out in general debates, as in NPT review conferences, and in future cases if and when a non-nuclear-weapon state seeks to develop indigenous capabilities to enrich uranium or separate plutonium. States and nongovernmental organizations will intensely debate whether the nuclear-weapon states are complying with their disarmament obligations and what are fair measures of progress toward that end. Discord also will be expressed over whether and how strengthened approaches to IAEA safeguards, including the toughened provisions of the additional protocol, are necessary to uphold the objectives of the NPT and whether inducements, or bargains, should be offered to make this more acceptable. 

The most potent criticism of the JCPOA is that by granting Iran the right to enrich uranium, it will now be practically impossible to persuade or collectively compel other states not to initiate fuel-cycle programs. This criticism has some validity at an abstract level, but is misguided and ultimately not convincing. 

First, critics seem to assume that the United States and its negotiating partners have the power to grant such rights and that they did so in the JCPOA. U.S. officials say that the deal does not establish any right to enrich uranium.6 In any case, Article IV of the NPT neither specifies a right to acquire specific types of nuclear equipment or material nor precludes such acquisition for peaceful purposes. Yet, largely as a result of the contest with Iran, much of the world now believes that enrichment is a sovereign right that is not for the United States or any cabal of states to grant. 

Second, the damage done by allowing highly conditioned enrichment activities in Iran is exaggerated. The number of other states that have displayed the interest and capability to begin enrichment programs, as Iran did, is quite small. South Korea is the only one.7 Indeed, in negotiations with the United States, South Korea has used arguments of fairness to seek consent to conduct fuel-cycle activities. Seoul has juxtaposed its standing as a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the NPT to that of India, which deploys nuclear weapons outside the NPT and has nonetheless won U.S. support for exempting it from nuclear trade restrictions. Seoul also cites the nuclear deal’s acceptance of enrichment in Iran. More speculatively, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are cited. The former has significant motivation to copy Iran, but lacks technical wherewithal.8 The latter has more capability but less motivation.9 Saudi Arabia and Turkey each would have more motivation to balance Iran if there were no nuclear deal and Iran’s nuclear program was unconstrained. 

Third, there was not a viable alternative to accepting circumscribed enrichment in Iran. Once it was understood that Iran would not be physically forced to comply with demands to totally relinquish enrichment activities and capabilities, the only way to establish verifiable limits on these activities was through bargaining. Iran won the right to continue enrichment; the international community won limits on the scale and scope of these activities and unprecedented verification and enforcement modalities.

To be sure, Iran paid an enormous price for winning these points. It lost hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue and trade as a result of sanctions and was politically isolated. It had to accept more comprehensive monitoring and verification of its future nuclear activities than other states. Nevertheless, given the long pattern of illicit Iranian nuclear activities and the evidence to doubt that its nuclear program was exclusively peaceful, Iran was able to bargain for more than it was arguably entitled under the NPT. This occurred in part because of the fundamental reality mentioned earlier: the rules-based international system, unlike domestic governance, does not have predictable recourse to physical power to enforce compliance. 

War is the final arbiter in the international system. If war is not a welcome option among the countries that would have to wage it in order to enforce compliance, which was the case regarding Iran, then negotiation and bargaining must be tried. In a bargaining process, the value of fairness naturally comes into play.


1.   Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Statement by the President on the Adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” October 18, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/10/18/statement-president-adoption-joint-comprehensive-plan-action.

2.   UN Security Council, S/RES/1696, July 31, 2006.

3.   Hassan Rouhani, Statement to the UN General Assembly, New York, September 24, 2013, https://gadebate.un.org/68/iran-islamic-republic.

4.   Leonard Weiss, “Nuclear-Weapon States and the Grand Bargain,” Arms Control Today, December 2003, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2003_12/Weiss.

5.   Mark Hibbs, “The Nuclear Suppliers Group’s Critical India Decision,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), June 18, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/06/18/nuclear-suppliers-group-s-critical-india-decision-pub-63848.

6.   For example, see Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Kerry’s Interview With Reuters on Iran’s Nuclear Program,” August 11, 2015, http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/texttrans/2015/08/20150812316777.html#ixzz4JgTSh3XQ.

7.   Toby Dalton, Byun Sunggee, and Lee Sang Tae, “South Korea Debates Nuclear Options,” CEIP, April 27, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/04/27/south-korea-debates-nuclear-options-pub-63455.

8.   Tristan Volpe, “Calling Out the Saudi Nuclear Bluff,” CEIP, August 25, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/publications/?fa=61095.

9.   George Perkovich and Sinan Ülgen, “Why Turkey Won’t Go Nuclear,” CEIP, April 10, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/10/why-turkey-won-t-go-nuclear-pub-59756.

George Perkovich is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He works primarily on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues and South Asian security.

The negotiations that produced the Iran nuclear agreement showed a dynamic that may affect how states approach future proliferation conflicts and the potential for resolving them diplomatically. 

The Strengthened Review Process for the Nonproliferation Treaty

October 2016

By Tariq Rauf

In his article (“The NPT Review Process: The Need for a More Productive Approach,” September 2016), Robert Einhorn proposes that states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) desist from striving to achieve a “comprehensive, consensus final document” at the 2020 NPT Review Conference. Rather, he calls for the conference to produce an accurate summary report that assesses NPT implementation, reflecting differences in the views among participating nations, and a forward-looking section on strengthening the NPT that includes both agreed proposals and those not agreed. He bases these and other recommendations on the grounds that the treaty itself does not provide specific guidance on the conduct and outcome of review conferences. 

While several of his proposed solutions to a seemingly dysfunctional NPT review process might appear attractive, none are really new. All have been tried in one way or another in the 1995-2000 and 2000-2005 review periods, including reports reflecting areas of agreement and disagreement, but all efforts failed due to the stubborn inflexibility of the participating nations. 

As someone who was closely involved with the development of the NPT “strengthened review process” in 1995 and 2000, I feel obligated to point out that the perceived shortcomings lie not in the process itself but in its deficient implementation by the states-parties.

The 179 NPT states-parties decided without a vote at the historic 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference to extend the treaty indefinitely. In doing so, they called for “strengthening the review process” and provided specific guidance on the future conduct and output of review conferences and the preparatory committees. As the 1995 guidance was not adequately implemented, states-parties by consensus in 2000 not only reaffirmed the 1995 provisions but also agreed that specific time be allocated at sessions of the preparatory committee to consider specific relevant issues and the consideration of issues at each session of the preparatory committee be factually summarized and transmitted to the next session for further discussion. Further, they directed that the preparatory committee should make every effort to produce a consensus report containing recommendations to the review conference. 

Contrary to Einhorn’s assertion, elaborate agreed guidance exists for the conduct of the review process—it is uncomplicated, easy to understand, and not difficult to implement given good faith, political will, and adequate advance preparations by states-parties. But it has not been implemented in good faith. 

Unfortunately, differences between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states and among the non-nuclear-weapon states, especially on nuclear disarmament and the establishment of a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction, have been growing unchecked. The resulting rancour, opprobrium, and nonfulfillment of agreed decisions and recommendations led to a collapse of the review process in the 1995-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010, and 2010-2015 preparatory committee sessions and to the failure of the 2005 and 2015 review conferences (with a partial success in 2010). Practical ideas to produce better outcomes all were rejected by different groupings of states-parties largely on flimsy grounds. 

Unwilling to place the blame for these failures where it correctly belongs, many delegates and observers have taken the easy road of blaming the review process.

The “strengthened review process” was envisioned to preserve and enhance the authority and integrity of the NPT across all its principal provisions, based on three underlying principles: (1) permanence with accountability, (2) a qualitatively strengthened, on-going review process that evaluates and is forward looking, and (3) pragmatism and dynamism on an evolving basis. In this regard, the strengthened review process aims to be a “living process” responsive to developments affecting the objectives of the NPT and “product oriented” in line with the provisions established in 1995, that is to produce a final document agreed by consensus to give it requisite authority. 

Tariq Rauf is director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He was senior adviser to the chair of main committee I (nuclear disarmament) at the 2015 NPT Review Conference and senior adviser to the chair of the 2014 NPT preparatory committee. 

Tariq Rauf argues that the perceived shortcomings of the treaty’s review efforts stem not from the process itself but from deficient implementation by states-parties.

UN Security Council Backs CTBT

October 2016

By Shervin Taheran

The UN Security Council adopted its first resolution specifically supporting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), with the vote intended to reaffirm the global norm against nuclear testing and to encourage the ratifications necessary to trigger the treaty’s entry into force. 

Resolution 2310, introduced by the United States, was approved 14-0, with Egypt abstaining. A total of 42 countries, including Israel, co-sponsored the resolution, which comes 20 years after the treaty was opened for signature.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats vote to adopt the resolution in support of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty during a UN Security Council meeting September 23. (Photo credit: Astrid Riecken/CTBTO)The CTBT has not entered into force because eight key states—China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States, also known as the Annex 2 states—have failed to ratify it. The resolution, adopted Sept. 23, urges those countries to ratify “without further delay” and calls on all states to refrain from conducting nuclear tests, emphasizing that current testing moratoria contribute to “international peace and stability.” 

Further, the resolution calls on states to “provide the support required” for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) and encourages states hosting International Monitoring System (IMS) facilities to transmit data to the International Data Centre pending the treaty’s entry into force.

The resolution also took note of a Sept. 15 joint statement by the five permanent Security Council members recognizing that “a nuclear-weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion would defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT.” By endorsing this language, the resolution affirmed the view of these five states that even before the treaty enters into force, all 183 CTBT signatories have an existing obligation not to conduct nuclear test explosions.

Before the vote, Egypt criticized the council for “squandering” an opportunity to emphasize the urgent need to advance nuclear disarmament, while noting that Egypt nevertheless “fully supports the purpose and objectives” of the CTBT.

The radionuclide station on the island of Tristan da Cunha, a remote UK territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, is part of the International Monitoring System of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. (Photo credit: CTBTO)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that although the council resolution “does not impose a legal prohibition on testing…it does reinforce the core purposes and objectives of the CTBT itself: to diminish our reliance on nuclear devices, to reduce competition among nuclear powers, and to promote responsible disarmament.”

After the resolution was adopted, CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo, speaking outside the council chamber, told reporters that he “can only welcome any initiative that serves to strengthen the norm against nuclear testing.” He noted the timeliness of the resolution, given the commemoration of the treaty’s 20th anniversary of opening for signature and North Korea’s continued nuclear test explosions. 

Zerbo said the resolution is not intended to circumvent the need for ratification by key countries. “The process for ratification remains the ultimate way to get the treaty into force,” he said.

Two New Ratifications

Resolution 2310 was adopted on the heels of the eighth “Friends of the CTBT” ministerial meeting held at UN headquarters Sept. 21. Thirteen foreign ministers and other high-level diplomats such as U.S. Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Zerbo spoke at the hour-long gathering. Among the ministers were representatives from Swaziland and Myanmar, nations that officially ratified the CTBT later that afternoon, bringing the number of treaty ratifications to 166. 

A joint ministerial statement released at the meeting condemned North Korea’s ongoing nuclear testing and called for prompt CTBT entry into force. Some diplomats were even more forceful in their statements, such as when Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion individually called out by name the eight states that are left of the 44 states listed in Annex 2 of the treaty whose ratifications are necessary to make the accord legally binding.

Congressional Reaction

Some Republican members of the U.S. Congress raised objections to the Security Council initiative and the proposed statement by the permanent members, before either were adopted or published, asserting that those measures might create a new legal prohibition on testing and bypass Congress’s role in ratifying treaties. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) expressed concern at a Sept. 7 hearing that the political statement referenced by the resolution would establish a new legal restriction on signatories by affirming that nuclear tests would defeat the “object and purpose” of the treaty. Such an interpretation would not apply to the United States because the Senate did not provide its advice and consent for ratification when it voted on the treaty in October 1999, he said.

But in a Sept. 7 letter to the committee, Kerry said, “Although the policy of the last administration was not to pursue U.S. ratification of the CTBT, that has not been the current administration’s policy.”

Kerry continued that, “as a matter of international law, treaty signatories are obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty, unless they make their intention clear not to become a party to the treaty.” Until another administration makes clear that the United States no longer intends to become a party to the treaty, as a “well-established principal of treaty law,” the United States will continue to have these obligations, he said. 

Nevertheless, on Sept. 8, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and 32 other Republican senators wrote to President Barack Obama threatening to seek to cut off U.S. funding for the CTBTO. Then, on Sept. 20, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and 12 other senators and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) and one colleague in the House introduced parallel bills threatening to bar U.S. funding for the CTBTO if the resolution “obligates the United States or affirms a purported obligation of the United States to refrain from actions that would run counter to the object and purpose” of the CTBT. The United States provides nearly a quarter of the funding for the CTBTO, including for maintenance and operation of the IMS, which serves to detect and deter nuclear testing, even before the CTBT enters into force.

But after the Security Council resolution was adopted, Corker, Cotton, and Rubio each released a statement acknowledging that the council action does not create a new legal prohibition or what Corker called a “backdoor process” to implement a treaty the Senate has not ratified.

Other members of Congress supported the initiative, including three members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, who issued a joint statement Sept. 23 welcoming the passage of the resolution and the joint statement. Reps. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said the resolution and joint statement reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a voluntary, national nuclear testing moratorium and to “responsible science-based management” of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

In a reference to Republican threats to defund the CTBTO, they noted that doing so would “threaten” the world’s ability to monitor nuclear tests in North Korea and would be “counterproductive” to U.S. security interests.

The vote was intended as a prod for the ratifications needed for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to enter into force. 

UN Weighs Nuclear Weapons Ban Talks

October 2016

By Kingston Reif

A resolution mandating the beginning of negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, slated to be debated in the UN General Assembly First Committee in October, is likely to be approved by a majority of UN member states, according to diplomats, despite pre-emptive efforts by the United States and other nuclear-armed countries to thwart action on such a measure.

The push to begin negotiations on a ban treaty has grown out of the frustration of many UN member states at the slow pace of nuclear disarmament by the world’s nine nuclear-armed countries. The non-nuclear-weapon states argue that the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use highlight the need to act with greater urgency to eliminate such weapons and to create new and alternative approaches and venues to spur progress toward that goal.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, in his September 21 UN General Assembly address, announced plans for a resolution to convene negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. (Photo credit: Cia Pak/UN)In a Sept. 21 speech at the United Nations, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz announced that his country, together with a group of other states, would press for such talks since “experience shows that the first step to eliminate weapons of mass destruction is to prohibit them through legally binding norms.”

The draft resolution—sponsored by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa—says the goal is “to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards [sic] their total elimination.” The draft circulated among UN diplomats calls for a one-day organizational meeting “as soon as possible” followed by two negotiating sessions totaling 20 working days in 2017.

The resolution does not set a deadline for the completion of talks or offer specifics on what the new instrument should contain. “We do not want to prejudice other countries’ views with regard to which aspects precisely should be dealt with in the negotiations,” Thomas Hajnoczi, Austria’s permanent representative to the UN Office at Geneva, said in a Sept. 22 email to Arms Control Today. “The exact scope will be part of the negotiation process.”

The resolution notes the groundwork laid by an open-ended working group that took place in Geneva this year, a forum that discussed ways to structure a nuclear-weapons ban and other steps to take for multilateral disarmament negotiations. On Aug. 19, by a vote of 68-22 with 13 abstentions, countries approved the final report of the open-ended working group, a forum in which all UN members can participate. (See ACT, September 2016.) The report noted that “a majority of states expressed support for the commencement of negotiations in the General Assembly…on a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.”

The report said a new instrument “would establish general prohibitions and obligations,” which could include a number of elements, such as “prohibitions on the acquisition, possession, stockpiling, development, testing and production of nuclear weapons.” The report added that a ban treaty “would be an interim or partial step toward nuclear disarmament” because it would leave measures for actually eliminating nuclear weapons “for future negotiations.” 

States supporting a ban treaty argued it would be “the most viable option for immediate action as it would not need universal support for the commencement of negotiations or for its entry into force,” according to the report. Hajnoczi noted that given the strong support at the open-ended working group for convening negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons, “it is generally assumed” that there will be similarly robust support for the UN resolution. 

Another European diplomat agreed, telling Arms Control Today that it would be “surprising if there is not a clear majority voting in favor of the resolution.”

The nuclear-armed countries have expressed strong opposition to commencing negotiations on a ban treaty, and none attended the open-ended working group in Geneva. Many U.S. allies such as Australia, South Korea, and many of the members of the NATO alliance, often labeled “umbrella states” because they rely on the U.S. nuclear arsenal to help protect them, have also expressed opposition to holding such negotiations.

In remarks at a conference in Kazakhstan on Aug. 29, Anita Friedt, U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, called “on all states to reject unrealistic efforts to ban nuclear weapons.” Such a treaty would be “polarizing and unverifiable” and “could actually end up harming the proven, practical, and inclusive efforts that have achieved tangible results on disarmament and will continue to do so,” she said.

The United States and its allies instead back a “building blocks” approach to advancing nuclear disarmament. This approach calls for such measures as achieving entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and commencing negotiations on further U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons reductions below the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty levels.

Ban supporters also favor these steps, but argue they have been on the international agenda for years and are no closer to being realized.

The push to begin negotiations reflects the frustration of many countries at the slow pace of nuclear disarmament.

Textron to Halt Cluster Bomb Production

October 2016

By Jeff Abramson and Alicia Jensen

In a busy period from the end of August through the first week of September, U.S. and global leaders took new steps to condemn the use of cluster munitions, halt their production, and expand efforts to clear land contaminated by their unexploded remnants.

The first of these actions came from the business sector when Textron Inc. announced on Aug. 30 that it would discontinue production of the last cluster munitions manufactured in the United States. The company stated in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it would end production by March 2017, citing “reduced orders” and difficulties in obtaining required executive branch and congressional approval in the “current political environment.”

A Textron executive (2nd from left) presents a sensor fuzed weapon CBU-105, a cluster bomb, to Emirati Major General Mohammed bin Suwaidan Saeed Al-Qamzi, then-commander of United Arab Emirates’ Air Force, (center) during the Dubai Air Show, November 14, 2007. (Photo credit: Haider Shah/AFP/Getty Images)That political environment includes a decision, first reported by Foreign Policy on May 27, that the Obama administration had suspended cluster munition transfers to Saudi Arabia following evidence of civilian casualties from their use in attacks in Yemen. A U.S. House of Representatives action to make that suspension more durable nearly passed in a June vote of 204-216 on an amendment to the fiscal year 2017 defense appropriations bill that would have barred the use of U.S. funds to authorize the transfer of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia.

Under a 2008 policy, the United States only allows the transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent. Textron’s CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon is the only cluster munition that the United States claims meets that standard. Beginning in 2007, the United States announced deals to sell CBU-105s to India, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates, but has not budgeted new funds itself for purchasing the weapons since then. It is unclear whether Textron may still complete existing orders before ending production and, if so, how many.

The CBU-105 has drawn renewed scrutiny because Saudi Arabia used the munition in its war in Yemen last year, the first documented use by a recipient country. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen, seeking to return former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power in Sanaa. Almost immediately after the coalition began its airstrikes, there were reports about the use of cluster munitions. Many of the cluster munitions were supplied before the year 2000, but field researchers from Human Rights Watch documented multiple examples of CBU-105 submunitions, or “skeet,” from a BLU-108 canister failing to disperse or detonate. 

Those failures have raised questions whether the CBU-105 meets the 1 percent criteria. Further, apparent use of the weapons near civilian areas may violate U.S. end-use restrictions that require cluster munitions “will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present.” 

Massachusetts Peace Action and members of other Quaker and peace groups protested production of cluster bombs and sales to Saudi Arabia at Textron’s Weapon & Sensor Systems facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts July 6. (Photo Credit: Karina Aguilar/Massachusetts Peace Action)

Cluster Munitions Condemned

Use of cluster munitions in Yemen, as well as in Syria in the past year, was condemned at the most recent meeting of states-parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). Held Sept. 5-7 at the United Nations in Geneva, treaty members adopted a political declaration that “condemn[s] any use of cluster munitions by any actor” and specifically lists their concerns “most notably in Syria and Yemen.” 

At least 248 casualties were caused by cluster munitions in Syria and 104 in Yemen in 2015, according to the latest annual report released just before the meeting by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. Preliminary data also suggested that, by the end of May this year, an additional 270 casualties had occurred in Syria. Airstrikes in Syria using cluster munitions have increased as of September 2015 when Russia initiated joint military operations with the Assad regime.

The treaty, which entered into force in 2010, has 100 states-parties and 19 signatories. 

Obama Tackles Past Use

Although not a CCM party nor an observer at states-parties’ meetings, the United States made a major new commitment to address the harm caused by cluster munitions when President Barack Obama visited Laos in early September.

Recognizing the U.S. role in bombing Laos during the Vietnam War, Obama pledged to increase U.S. spending to a total of $90 million over three years to conduct a comprehensive unexploded ordnance survey of Laos and for continued clearing operations, as well as to continue to assist victims. The pledged sum would be twice the yearly amount that has recently been allocated to the project. According to a White House fact sheet, the United States has contributed more than $100 million to such activities in Laos in the last 20 years, helping reduce annual casualties from more than 300 to fewer than 50. 

In a Sept. 7 speech, Obama noted that, during the Vietnam War, “America’s intervention here in Laos was a secret to the American people…. Over the course of a decade, the United States dropped more bombs on Laos than Germany and Japan during World War II. Some 270 million cluster bomblets were dropped on this country.” 

Although not addressing broader U.S. policy on cluster munitions, he also said, “I believe that we have a profound moral and humanitarian obligation to support this work.”

Saudi use in Yemen renews criticism of such munitions.

Officials Differ on Iran Deal Reporting

October 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued its third quarterly report assessing Iran’s compliance with the July 2015 nuclear deal, as officials from several nations disagree on whether more details are needed in IAEA reporting on Tehran’s nuclear activities. 

The Sept. 8 report says that Iran is abiding by key restrictions laid out in the agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The IAEA certified in January that Iran met the requirements to begin implementation of the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Prior to that, the agency was directed by its board of governors in December 2015 to issue quarterly reports on Iran’s compliance. (See ACT, March 2016; January/February 2016.)

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Yukiya Amano meets with Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna on March 5. (Photo credit: Veysel Kuecuektas/IAEA)The report notes compliance with constraints set by the accord, among them Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium being less than the 300-kilogram cap, its enrichment levels remaining at 3.67 percent uranium-235, and Tehran using only 5,060 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges for enrichment at its Natanz facility. 

Despite these details, an official from one of the European countries that negotiated the agreement with Iran told Arms Control Today on Sept. 19 that “it is in the best interest of all parties to the agreement for the agency to provide greater detail” on Iran’s nuclear activities. The official said that “more transparency equals more trust in the implementation of the deal” and that several European countries planned to urge IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano to be more forthcoming in the quarterly reports during the September meetings of the IAEA Board of Governors. 

But another European official said in a Sept. 16 email that there is too much emphasis on the content of the agency’s reports. He said that nuclear activities and the monitoring of nuclear programs is “technically sensitive” and that “not every detail needs to be public.” The official said that what is important is that the IAEA continue to raise any compliance concerns that it observes, as the agency did with the heavy-water limits, and that all of the parties continue to work together to resolve any issues that may emerge as the deal is implemented.

In its first quarterly report on implementation of the agreement, the IAEA in February said that Iran’s stockpile of heavy water, which can be used to moderate some types of nuclear reactors, exceeded the 130 metric ton limit set in the deal. Iran shipped out a portion of its stockpile to return to compliance. The subsequent reports in May and September noted that Iran was under the 130-ton limit. 

In a Sept. 21 statement to the board, Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said that the reports “have included the level of detail necessary” for the board and the parties to the nuclear deal to “accurately assess Iran’s implementation of its commitments” and that the “amount of detail needed in these reports necessarily depends on the IAEA’s actual observations and they can be adjusted as necessary.”

The September report did provide some new information on Iranian nuclear activities since the previous IAEA report on Iran, issued in May. The September report noted that Iran removed 96 IR-1 centrifuges from the storage area at Natanz to replace damaged centrifuges that were enriching uranium. As part of the agreement, Iran moved about 13,000 centrifuge machines into storage monitored by the IAEA and can only access the machines under agency supervision to replace broken or damaged machines. 

According to the report, Iran also submitted declarations to the IAEA for implementation of its additional protocol, which gives agency inspectors expanded access to information and sites, and the IAEA is evaluating those documents. As part of the nuclear agreement, Iran is provisionally implementing the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and will seek ratification of the document.

The IAEA said Iran is complying, but some diplomats want more.

Last CW Materials Removed from Libya

October 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

The last remnants of Libya’s chemical weapons program have been shipped out of the country, removing the threat that the precursor chemicals could be captured and weaponized by a militia or terrorist group.

Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said in a Sept. 8 press release that a Danish ship transported Libya’s remaining stockpile of chemical weapons precursors to Germany for destruction. 

The Danish naval force conducted a loading operation August 27 to remove the remnants of Libya’s chemical weapons program as part of an urgent international effort to ensure they would not be seized by militants. (Photo credit: Thorbjørn Hein/Defence Command Denmark)Libya requested in February that the OPCW, the body charged with overseeing implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), provide in-country assistance in destroying the precursors. Then in July, Libya requested that the precursors quickly be moved outside of the country for elimination due to concerns that they could fall into the hands of nonstate actors amid fighting by rival militias.

 On July 20, the OPCW Executive Council approved the request for assistance and directed Üzümcü to work with the Libyan government on a plan to move the precursors out of the country and destroy them. The OPCW decision was endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2298 on July 22. 

Paul Walker, director for environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, said in a Sept. 14 email that if the precursors of more than 500 metric tons of phosphorus trichloride and 2-chloroethanol were not removed, they could have been stolen by terrorists and used to produce chemical agents or, more likely, used as “toxic dual-use chemicals” in terrorism operations. Walker, also a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, said that “the timely removal of these dangerous chemicals precludes any further possible risks of terrorist misuse.”

The precursors were part of a larger Libyan chemical weapons program run by the regime of then-leader Moammar Gaddafi. After the United States toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ostensibly over the issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Libya joined the CWC in 2004, declared the size of its chemical weapons stockpiles to the OPCW, and began destroying the chemicals in October 2010. 

That initial declaration to the OPCW included nearly 25 metric tons of sulfur mustard agent, 1,390 metric tons of precursors, munitions designed for delivering chemical weapons, and chemical weapons production facilities. Sulfur mustard is a Category 1 chemical weapon. Category 1 weapons are the most toxic. The precursors are Category 2. 

After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, the new Libyan government declared additional quantities of Category 1 chemicals to the OPCW. (See ACT, June 2012.) The stockpiles declared in November 2011 and February 2012 were omitted from Libya’s initial declarations when it ratified the CWC. 

Libya completed the destruction of its most dangerous stocks of chemicals, primarily sulfur mustard, in-country in 2014 and set a deadline of December 2016 for the destruction of the precursors. 

Libya initially raised the issue of international assistance in removing the precursors during the international effort to remove chemical weapons from Syria in 2013-2014, but other countries said that the precursors posed little threat, Walker said. “However, more recent violence not far from Libya’s chemical stocks raised alarm bells again in 2015-16, and fortunately Libya was able to move the chemicals to a port,” he said. 

Danish Commodore Torben Mikkelsen inspects the containment equipment September 6 en route to Germany, where the chemicals are due to be destroyed. (Photo credit: Defence Command Denmark)The destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons outside of Syria set a precedent for transporting the precursors out of Libya for destruction. The CWC normally requires a state to destroy stocks within their territory. 

A number of countries contributed financial and technical support for the transport of chemicals from Libya to Germany for destruction. The state-owned German company GEKA will handle the destruction at a specialized facility in Munster under OPCW monitoring. 

Elizabeth Trudeau, director of the press office at the U.S. State Department, said in a Sept. 9 press briefing that the United States fully supported the Libyan request for international assistance and contributed $5 million and logistical support for the international effort. 

Denmark led a multicountry operation to ship the precursors from the Libyan port of Misrata to Bremen, Germany. A Danish ship collected the chemicals on Aug. 27, with the United Kingdom providing a military escort ship and Finland and Italy providing additional support. 

Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen said in an Aug. 31 statement that Denmark was proud to contribute to an effort to “support a more stable Libya” and a “safer world free of chemical weapons.” Jensen noted that the removal of the chemicals from Libya “ensured that they will not fall into the wrong hands.” 

The elimination of the Libyan chemical weapons program “marks an important step forward in completing safe and irreversible destruction of national stockpiles of chemical weapons,” he said.

The Libyan and Syrian cases demonstrate that the international community can organize to “rid the world of dangerous arsenals in a timely and safe manner,” Walker said. Yet, four countries—Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan—remain outside of the CWC and some of them are “suspected” of having chemical weapons arsenals, “so we still face obstacles in truly universalizing the abolition regime,” he said.

The precursor chemicals were shipped to Germany for destruction, assuring that militia groups or terrorists in Libya wouldn’t be able to seize them. 

Price Tag Rising for Planned ICBMs

October 2016

By Kingston Reif

The projected $85 billion cost to design and build a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, the figure set by the Defense Department’s top acquisition official in advancing the program, is at the low end of an independent Pentagon estimate that found the price tag could exceed $100 billion, an informed source told Arms Control Today.

The Air Force last year published an initial cost estimate of $62.3 billion for the replacement program. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base California on May 21, 2013. (Photo credit: Senior Airman Lael Huss/U.S. Air Force)The growing price of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, as it is known, comes as the Obama administration continues to grapple with how to pay for current plans to modernize U.S. nuclear forces and has raised questions about whether there are cheaper alternatives to sustain the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad. 

The estimate of $85 billion to more than $100 billion was prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) in support of the program’s milestone A decision, a key early benchmark in the acquisition process for the weapons system. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, approved the milestone A decision on Aug. 23, the Air Force announced in a Sept. 1 press release.

CAPE provides the Defense Department with detailed analysis of the costs of major acquisition programs. The estimate, in then-year dollars, includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program.

The approved $85 billion program cost baseline is contained in a document written by Kendall known as an acquisition decision memorandum and includes the cost to purchase 666 new missiles and rebuild the existing missile infrastructure, the source said. The higher $100 billion-plus CAPE figure is not included in the memo, the source added.

The projected cost to operate and sustain the weapons system over its expected 50-year service life is roughly $150 billion, putting the total cost of the GBSD program at $238 billion, according to the source. 

Bloomberg News was the first to report on the $85 billion estimate set by Kendall. 

Cost Estimates Uncertain

Kendall’s approval of the milestone A decision was reportedly delayed due to the large gap between the cost estimate prepared by the Air Force and the more recent independent estimate prepared by CAPE. (See ACT, September 2016.)

According to the Bloomberg report, Kendall wrote in the acquisition memo that “there is significant uncertainty about program costs” because “the historical data is limited and there has been a long gap since the last” time the U.S. government built an ICBM. 

In remarks at an event on Capitol Hill on Sept. 22, Jamie Morin, the director of CAPE, said that there were “nontrivial” differences in how the CAPE and Air Force cost estimates were built, including contrasting inputs on the missile portion of the replacement program and assessments of the program’s overall “complexity.” 

According to Morin, CAPE based its cost calculations on historical data that could be culled from previous ICBM procurement efforts, such as the Minuteman and Peacekeeper programs, as well as data from the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy’s Trident missile program. 

Like Kendall, Morin emphasized the uncertainty of the cost estimate at this early stage of the acquisition process and noted that it is rare for CAPE to publish low- and high-end estimates for a major program. 

Questions Raised 

The projected cost of the GBSD program could add to worries about the affordability challenges posed by U.S. nuclear weapons spending plans. (See ACT, May 2016.)

In remarks June 6 at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington, Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said President Barack Obama would continue to evaluate plans that envision ramping up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and would decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” (See ACT, June 2016.)

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes added. 

Rhodes did not specify a timeline for when the president would make a decision on whether to adjust the modernization plans and, if so, when he would announce it.

Meanwhile, some analysts are questioning whether the GBSD program is the most cost-effective way to maintain the ICBM leg of the triad.

Prior to the cost analysis conducted by CAPE, the Air Force had been arguing that the price to build a new missile system would be roughly the same as the cost to sustain the Minuteman III over the next 50 years and would not provide desired capability upgrades. (See ACT, April 2016.

But a 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force found that “any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”

The report said continuing to maintain the Minuteman III through life-extension programs and “gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

In a Sept. 22 interview with Arms Control Today, Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he did not see a technical reason why the life of the Minuteman III could not be extended for a period of time beyond 2030 if the missile’s solid fuel propellant was replaced and the Pentagon forwent capability upgrades.

Another life extension of the Minuteman III would allow the Air Force to defer a decision on whether to build a replacement system, thereby easing some of the pressure current nuclear and conventional weapons spending plans will put on the defense budget over the next 15 years, Harrison added.

The growing cost for the Minuteman III replacements comes as the Obama administration grapples with how to pay modernizing for U.S. nuclear forces. 


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