"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
November 2016

Digital magazine

Edition Date: 
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
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U.S. to Press Russia on INF Dispute

November 2016

By Kingston Reif

The United States and Russia plan to convene the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty’s implementation mechanism this month for the first time in more than a decade as each country continues to claim that the other is violating the 1987 pact. 

A U.S. State Department official told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 21 email that Washington requested a meeting of the Special Verification Commission. That body was established by the treaty to “resolve questions relating to compliance” and to “agree upon such measures as may be necessary to improve the viability and effectiveness” of the treaty. Either party can call for a meeting of the commission, which last met in 2003. 

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the East Room of the White House on December 8, 1987. (Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)The work of the commission “is conducted in a confidential manner, so we will decline to provide additional details,” the official said.

The United States had been reluctant to convene the body as it preferred to address its compliance concerns through direct, high-level talks with Russia. But these bilateral contacts have not been successful. 

Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the department for nonproliferation and arms control at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told RIA Novosti on Oct. 21 that the commission meeting is scheduled for mid-November and that Russia plans to attend. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, the former Soviet republics that are also party to the treaty, are expected to attend as well.

The State Department continues to stand by the assessment, first made in July 2014, that Russia is in violation of its INF Treaty obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile having a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers or “to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”

Russia denies that it is breaching the agreement and has raised its own concerns about Washington’s compliance. Moscow is charging that the United States is placing a missile defense launch system in Europe that can also be used to fire cruise missiles, using targets for missile defense tests with similar characteristics to INF Treaty-prohibited intermediate-range missiles, and making armed drones that are equivalent to ground-launched cruise missiles. 

Ulyanov said that Russia planned to discuss these three issues at the November meeting.

U.S. Defense and State Department officials have publicly stated that they believe that the Russian cruise missiles at issue have not been deployed. But an Oct. 19 report in The New York Times cited anonymous U.S. officials expressing concern that Russia is producing more missiles than needed solely for flight testing, raising fears that Moscow may be on the verge of deploying the missile.

The United States and Russia plan to convene the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty’s implementation mechanism this month for the first time in more than a decade...

B61 Bomb Cost Updated to $8.3 Billion

November 2016

By Kingston Reif

A new Energy Department assessment of the program to rebuild the B61 nuclear gravity bomb projects the cost at about $8.3 billion, but an independent department estimate identified risk factors that could lead to cost increases and schedule delays. 

The official estimate by the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is contained in a document known as a baseline cost report, includes $7.6 billion in direct funding for the B61 life extension program and $648 million in funding supported through other agency programs, according to NNSA Press Secretary Francie Israeli. 

At Sandia National Laboratories, Ron Maes (right) and Jeff Meador prepare a B61-12 test assembly that will be used to study the behavior and performance of weapon components and systems under a variety of conditions. (Photo credit: Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories)In an Oct. 18 statement to Arms Control Today, Israeli said the estimate “is within the range” of the last formal estimate prepared by the NNSA in 2013, which put the total cost of the program at $8.1 billion.

The minimal cost growth over the past three years is consistent with repeated public assurances from the NNSA that good progress is being made on the program, which in June entered the production-engineering phase of the life extension process and is on track to produce the first refurbished B61 bomb in fiscal year 2020. The production-engineering phase authorizes NNSA design laboratories and production plants to finalize the design and prepare for production.

But the NNSA’s newly created Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation has raised concerns about meeting that cost and timetable. The independent office’s assessment “highlighted potential cost and schedule risks,” which the B61 program office is “monitoring and mitigating,” according to Israeli.

Israeli did not respond to a request for a comment on whether the office published its own estimate and, if so, how much higher it is than the official baseline. 

In 2012, before the creation of the NNSA’s independent cost estimating office, the Defense Department’s independent Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation analyzed the B61 life extension program and estimated the cost at more than $10 billion. The estimate warned that the program could take three years longer to complete and that labor costs could be higher than expected by the NNSA.

A number of major NNSA projects have suffered from significant cost increases and schedule delays. For example, a 2011 preliminary estimate of the B61 life extension program estimated the cost at $4 billion and said the first bomb would be produced in 2017.

Under the B61 life extension program, the agency plans to consolidate four of the five existing versions of the bomb into a single weapon known as the B61-12. The upgraded weapon will be equipped with a new tail-kit guidance assembly that will make the bomb more accurate and allow it to have a lower yield than some of the existing variants. The new tail kit is being developed by the Air Force and is estimated to cost $1.3 billion. 

The NNSA is expected to produce 400 to 500 B61-12s, which officials have said will lead to the retirement of the stock of B83 gravity bombs, the most powerful nuclear weapon remaining in the U.S. arsenal. 

The existing variants of the B61 can be delivered by the B-2 strategic bomber and a variety of shorter-range fighter aircraft in support of the U.S. security commitment to NATO. Approximately 200 tactical B61 gravity bombs are believed to be housed on the territory of five NATO members: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. 

The B61 life extension program has been a controversial issue in Congress. In 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), then the chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NNSA nuclear weapons funding, led efforts in the Senate to scale back the program. But the program was fully funded in the final appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014 and has been fully funded every year since. (See ACT, March 2014.)

As the B61 program moves into the production-engineering phase, an independent assessment flags risk factors that could delay the schedule and raise the cost.

November 2016 Books of Note

November 2016

Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons
Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Cornell University Press, September 2016, 288 pp. 

Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer examines why dictators in Iraq and Libya pursued the development of nuclear weapons and the factors that contributed to the failure of both programs. Braut-Hegghammer argues that Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi weakened state institutions to consolidate power in their respective countries, and as a result, neither leader had the capacity to manage and monitor progress on his nuclear weapons program. The destruction of formal institutions created limitations in auditing and processing the progress made on nuclear weapons programs, making it difficult for the authoritarian leaders to check how the programs were advancing. Drawing on primary source materials and interviews in the region, she concludes that both leaders were inconsistent in paying attention to their nuclear programs and created conditions that hindered technical advancement when they feared military attacks. Libya was even less successful than Iraq because of the extent of the erosion of state institutions during the Gaddafi era. Braut-Hegghammer concludes by discussing the wider implications of her argument that state capacity is an important variable in the performance of nuclear weapons programs in states governed by leader-centric authoritarian regimes. To test her argument, she briefly examines Syria’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons and its dependence on foreign assistance to address domestic deficits created by weak state capacity. Overall, Braut-Hegghammer’s findings offer useful insights into how personalist regimes make decisions about nuclear weapons that could have implications for future nonproliferation policies.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Deterring Nuclear Terrorism
Robert S. Litwak, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, October 2016, 149 pp.

Nuclear terrorism has defied the bad- and worst-case scenarios since the 1990s, even as groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State have aspired to conduct spectacular attacks. Although the threat comes from such nonstate actors, Robert Litwak, director for international security studies at the Wilson Center, writes that nonproliferation and deterrence strategies directed at states remain key because the nuclear weapons and materials that terrorist groups seek to acquire exist in states. “Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state,” he writes. The “leakage” of a weapon would come from one of nine states, although the list of states with weapons-grade fissile material is longer, currently 26, he says. He cites three nuclear-weapon states of particular concern: North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia, noting that the issues involving a fourth, Iran, have been mitigated by its recent nuclear accord. Litwak highlights the importance of nonproliferation and deterrence policies on states that, unlike nonstate actors, can be influenced through those means. Given the hurdles to buying or stealing a weapon, nuclear terrorism is “mostly likely to take the form of a so-called dirty bomb,” which uses conventional explosives to disperse radiological materials, he warns. With such an attack “more likely than not” because of the widespread use of radiological isotopes, he recommends that governments educate their publics about how a dirty bomb differs from a nuclear weapon in order to “stave off mass panic” in the event of such an attack.TERRY ATLAS

Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons and Deterring Nuclear Terrorism

The Logic of Integrating Conventional and Nuclear Planning

November 2016

By Vincent A. Manzo and Aaron R. Miles

In September, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called for NATO to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence. “Across the Atlantic, we’re refreshing NATO’s nuclear playbook to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence, to ensure we plan and train like we’d fight, and to deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO—from trying to ‘escalate to de-escalate,’ as some there call it.”1

Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Scher stated that the Department of Defense is “working to ensure an appropriate level of integration between nuclear and conventional planning and operations.”2 

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks September 26 to troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, which is home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. (Photo credit: Sergeant Brigitte N. Brantley/Defense Department)At first glance, these statements may seem discordant with the long-standing U.S. view that nuclear weapons are distinct and apart from other military capabilities. This fundamental distinction is reflected in almost every aspect of how nuclear weapons are treated. Only the president can authorize the employment of nuclear weapons, and the United States maintains a unique declaratory policy explaining and limiting the conditions under which their use would be considered. Nuclear weapons require special operational considerations and safeguards. Personnel with access to nuclear weapons, facilities, and materials require additional screening and monitoring. The notion of conventional and nuclear weapons integration is often portrayed as threatening to weaken or break down the special status and “profound caution” afforded to nuclear weapons. 

Yet, the statements by Carter and Scher are consistent with U.S. nuclear deterrence policy and the underlying philosophy from which it stems. Much of the integration debate boils down to differing characterizations of the ends and ways of conventional and nuclear weapons integration, a question of objectives, and how to achieve them. Ensuring “an appropriate level of integration” requires a mix of maintaining and improving key aspects of integration. Doing so serves U.S. security interests, in particular, providing effective nuclear deterrence, without increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, blurring the distinction between non-nuclear and nuclear conflict, or lowering the threshold for nuclear use. 

Indeed, better integration will reduce the likelihood of an adversary’s nuclear use while maintaining the U.S. threshold at its appropriately high level. Deeper integration between conventional and nuclear planning and operations is essential to ensure U.S. nuclear weapons can continue to effectively fulfill their fundamental deterrence role in the 21st century. 

Fulfilling an Enduring Role 

The primary role of U.S. nuclear weapons has not changed since the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, that is, to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies and partners. Deterrence is strengthened by the arsenal’s capacity to perform its secondary role of “achieving U.S. and allied objectives if deterrence fails.” Neither of these roles is new, but the security environment in which U.S. nuclear posture and strategy must support these roles is changing. So too are the nuclear deterrence challenges for which the United States must prepare.

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report illuminated this changing context, stating that U.S. nuclear forces communicate to “potential nuclear-armed adversaries that they cannot escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.”3 More than a massive surprise nuclear attack in peacetime or a suicide attack on the U.S. homeland, the QDR highlights the danger of a calibrated and limited attack amid a conventional conflict gone awry.

Developments in Russia, North Korea, and China demonstrate why this is a salient deterrence challenge. These countries may see tacit or explicit nuclear threats as a potent means of demonstrating to U.S. leaders that U.S. stakes are materially lower than their own, thereby weakening U.S. commitment to come to the aid of allies should they find themselves in a regional conflict.4 Numerous analysts have observed that Russia sees limited nuclear attack as a potential means of de-escalating a conventional conflict by demonstrating a favorable asymmetry of stakes or at least views threatening such a course of action as useful for deterring U.S. engagement at the outset. The working assumption would be that following an initial limited nuclear attack, the side with more skin in the game would be more willing to continue the fight and accept the attendant risk of further nuclear escalation. At the other end of the capability spectrum, North Korea may see the threat of limited nuclear escalation early in conflict as an effective means of deterrence and wartime coercion in the face of vastly superior U.S. and South Korean conventional forces. Finally, China has a no-first-use declaratory policy, but debates within China over what constitutes first use and whether the declaratory policy would hold in a conflict suggest some consideration for threatening or using nuclear weapons for purposes other than responding to nuclear attack. 

There is a strategic logic to these considerations of threatening nuclear use for purposes other than deterring nuclear attack. Notions of accepting and even enhancing escalation risk and of utilizing nuclear weapons to achieve a favorable outcome in conventional war have precedent in the theory of military strategy and the actual strategies of nuclear-weapon states, including the United States during the Cold War.5 

Because there is escalation risk inherent in any conflict between nuclear-armed states, it would be irresponsible to extend security commitments to U.S. allies and pledge to deter conventional aggression without taking into account how potential foes may deliberately or haphazardly bring nuclear weapons into play. Thus, when dealing with a nuclear-armed adversary, there is intrinsic and unavoidable linkage between the conventional and nuclear realms. Ignoring that fact invites peril. 

Why Integration?

Managing escalation in confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries is an essential element of U.S. national security strategy. Escalation management seeks to protect the vital interests of the United States and its allies while convincing an adversary to refrain from using the full military means at its disposal. Deeper integration of nuclear and conventional planning and operations serves three ends of escalation management. Preparing to achieve these ends weakens the coercive nuclear strategies adversaries may develop when contemplating aggression and therefore ultimately strengthens the United States’ ability to deter a conflict from starting in the first place. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a conference at the main command center of the Russian armed forces in Moscow on June 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Michael Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)The first objective of integration is to strengthen one’s ability to deter adversaries from choosing nuclear escalation in a conventional conflict. Because nuclear weapons enable a country to rapidly inflict massive levels of damage, a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed state is fundamentally different from one with a non-nuclear adversary. Whatever other political objectives brought the United States into such a war, deterring first use of nuclear weapons would automatically become a central U.S. objective. 

Second, integration aims to strengthen one’s ability to achieve U.S. and allied objectives if deterrence fails. Presumably, the United States would enter any conventional conflict with a set of war aims tied to political objectives. Those aims and objectives are unlikely to disappear after a limited nuclear attack, although they might change somewhat in substance or priority. Integration facilitates efforts to keep conventional operations and nuclear posture aligned with the political objectives they are designed to support.

Third, integration increases the likelihood of successfully restoring deterrence following an adversary’s nuclear weapons use. If an adversary resorts to using nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict, the possibility that it would use them again will seem very real. Just like deterring first use of nuclear weapons would be a central U.S. objective in any conflict with a nuclear-armed adversary, deterring further nuclear use and escalation would automatically become a central objective once an adversary crossed the nuclear threshold. Scher touched on this as well, saying that “integration means being prepared to restore deterrence following adversary nuclear use, so that failure to deter first use does not translate into failure to deter subsequent nuclear use.”6 

Strengthening Integration 

There are three principal ways to improve integration consistent with the special status afforded to U.S. nuclear weapons. The first two represent areas where improvement is needed, and the third is principally a matter of ensuring that current capabilities remain viable. Together, these aspects of integration strengthen U.S. escalation management strategy by helping the United States avoid miscalculation leading to nuclear war. If deterrence fails, they help ensure that the president’s options for responding to a nuclear attack are not limited to ceding victory to the aggressor or ordering a massive nuclear counterattack. Integration enables the additional options of continuing the conventional war after adversary nuclear weapons use without responding in kind or responding in kind while continuing conventional military operations. 

Planning conventional campaigns to shape adversary escalation calculus. Deterring nuclear escalation within a conventional conflict is an important 21st century challenge. The United States must prepare to operate under the nuclear shadow while navigating through the fog of conventional war. The core principles of nuclear deterrence remain the same after the fighting starts: willingness to respond forcefully and purposefully to nuclear weapons use and willingness to show certain forms of restraint as long as the adversary does not use nuclear weapons. Yet, effectively communicating resolve and restraint—the ying and the yang of the deterrence message—amid the confusion and emotion of war may require additional measures.

The threat of response must effectively convey that the United States and its allies will not allow an adversary to escalate its way to victory, split alliances through coercive threats or nuclear attack, or achieve a favorable military situation by using nuclear weapons. At the same time, U.S. officials must sustain and communicate the promise of restraint that is inherent in every deterrence threat, the assurance that choosing to remain below the nuclear threshold will spare the adversary the threatened cost of crossing it. 

Harmonizing this deterrence strategy with U.S. conventional operations is a key point of integration. As Scher explained, “[I]ntegration means conventional operations must be planned and executed with deliberate thought as to how they shape the risk that the adversary will choose nuclear escalation.”7 The United States may need to forgo certain objectives, such as regime change, that would likely lead adversary leadership to see nuclear weapons use as its only viable option for survival. In order for the adversary to understand and believe that this restraint is contingent on it not using nuclear weapons, the United States would also need to avoid military operations the adversary is likely to perceive as a precursor to regime change or disarming strategic attacks. This would likely require withholding attacks on adversary nuclear forces, nuclear command and control, political leadership, and assets or capabilities critical to an adversary’s basic ability to defend its homeland. 

As the United States, Russia, China, and others expand their strategic postures and operational concepts to include conventional, space, cyber, and nuclear forces, integration requires looking across domains and functional capabilities to fully analyze escalation risks. Will a particular cyber- or space operation impact an adversary’s nuclear operations? How will adversary leadership interpret the intent of the operation? If an operation is intended to strip away adversary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, how will it impact the adversary’s ability to gauge U.S. and allied limited aims?

The twin objectives of effectively waging the conventional campaign and seamlessly executing a nuclear deterrence strategy will likely engender tension and require difficult trade-offs. For example, the United States may be at a disadvantage in executing in a conventional conflict if it does not launch conventional strikes against adversary air defenses or conventional missile systems. If these targets are located in a nuclear-armed adversary’s homeland, however, U.S. officials may be concerned that adversary leadership will perceive such actions as indicative of a drive for regime change. Integration cannot eliminate these tensions and trade-offs, but it can help illuminate critical decision points. This will help senior decision-makers weigh the benefits and escalation risks of certain courses of action. Ultimately, whether certain conventional military operations should be ruled out or curtailed in order to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation is a presidential decision. The purpose of this aspect of integration is to enable informed decisions about U.S. strategy in confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries and to ensure U.S. military and diplomatic means are poised to execute that strategy as precisely as possible. 

Strengthening conventional resiliency to nuclear operations. An adversary may see nuclear escalation as an efficient means to shift the conventional military balance in a conflict, even if only for a short period of time. Strengthening the resiliency of conventional operations to adversary nuclear attack is a second way to strengthen integration. 

Conventional resiliency includes the ability to communicate, operate, and resupply in a nuclear environment. There are a variety of means for enhancing resiliency, including hardening, redundancy, and dispersing forces and points of debarkation to reduce vulnerable single points of failure.8 Yet, enhancing resiliency is also a matter of intelligence and imagination. How might an adversary employ its nuclear forces to disrupt U.S. conventional operations? What are the vulnerabilities an adversary may target? Exploring these questions will be essential as the United States enters a period of technological and operational innovation to maintain conventional deterrence against Russia and China.9

This aspect of integration contributes to managing escalation for two reasons. First, it preserves presidential flexibility in the face of limited nuclear use. Wherever possible, the president should have the option of continuing the conventional fight even after an adversary employs nuclear weapons. Furthermore, this should not be a binary strategy where conventional and nuclear options for responding to a nuclear attack are mutually exclusive. Denying presidential flexibility would essentially offer the adversary the ability to dictate the means of the conflict by choosing nuclear escalation. This would more likely favor the side that perceives itself as conventionally weaker and therefore more reliant on nuclear weapons. 

Second, conventional resiliency reduces the potential benefits of attacking U.S. forces with nuclear weapons. If a limited nuclear attack is unlikely to result in a decisive operational-military advantage, then using nuclear weapons carries high risk but scant rewards. In other words, conventional resiliency contributes to deterrence. 

For both of these reasons, ignoring conventional resiliency invites adversaries to elevate the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies. 

Providing integrated response options that are limited and credible. Possessing credible options for responding to first use of nuclear weapons reinforces all three ends of escalation management (deterring nuclear escalation and, if deterrence fails, restoring deterrence and achieving other U.S. and allied objectives). Potential adversaries may conclude they can calibrate a nuclear attack to coerce the United States into capitulating without causing sufficient destruction to provoke a large nuclear response. The ability to respond to an attack purposefully and proportionately helps convince adversaries that no such sweet spot exists. Of course, what constitutes a purposeful and proportionate response would depend on the context. As a general rule, the U.S. response would need to be integrated into the conventional campaign to avoid disrupting U.S. conventional operations. In order to deter rather than spur another nuclear attack, the response would need to be consistent with U.S. efforts to communicate its resolve and its limited war aims to the adversary. Finally, it would also need to be integrated into the broader political strategy for orchestrating an end to the conflict. 

This ability underpins the strategic message that the United States will defend the core interests of its allies even in the face of nuclear threats. Relying solely on large-scale response options may indeed be credible for deterring attacks on the U.S. homeland, but as the sole means for reacting to a limited attack overseas, it runs the risk of appearing as a hollow bluff to allies and adversaries alike. Limited options are thus an important part of extending deterrence and assuring U.S. allies. 

This is not a call for returning to nuclear artillery or using nuclear weapons for tactical military effects that could be achieved with conventional forces. Rather, the United States should retain the diversity and flexibility of its current arsenal, particularly its nuclear-capable bomber and fighter aircraft. These aircraft are key to effectively deterring and responding to limited nuclear attack because they can be used to demonstrably signal deterrence messages (they are the only component of U.S. nuclear forces that is visible and recallable), they can be forward deployed in crisis and conflict and well as in peacetime, and the weapons they can carry contribute to the range of yields in the U.S. stockpile. Under the current stockpile reduction plan, these aircraft will carry a single type of gravity bomb (the life-extended B61), and the bomber force will also carry a single type of nuclear-armed cruise missile (the air-launched cruise missile, to be replaced with the modernized long-range standoff weapon).

Owing to tremendous reductions in warhead numbers and types over the past three decades as a result of negotiated and unilateral actions, the U.S. arsenal and suite of delivery platforms have reached a minimum acceptable level of diversity and flexibility. Although some numerical reductions may still be possible, warhead and delivery platform types should not be further reduced in the near term. On the contrary, those remaining capabilities should be sustained and, where necessary to remain viable, modernized to maintain the existing range of credible and proportionate response options.

In concert with U.S. land- and submarine-based ballistic missiles, this suite of capabilities is minimally sufficient for enabling integrated, limited options for achieving U.S. objectives after a limited attack when the president judges that non-nuclear responses alone are insufficient. For example, after a limited nuclear attack on U.S. forces fighting abroad, the president may judge that the United States needs to demonstrate its willingness to respond with nuclear weapons. A conventional response, even if capable of destroying the same target on a comparable timescale, would not have the same psychological impact as a response in kind and risks inviting a follow-on nuclear strike or fracturing an alliance. A larger nuclear response could be disproportionately destructive, triggering physical and operational effects that provoke rather than deter further escalation. 

Under these conditions, a limited nuclear response might succeed in restoring nuclear deterrence and sustaining the alliance. Success would not be guaranteed, but the risks of alternative options would likewise be severe. 

Addressing Counterarguments

Some contend that the objectives of U.S. escalation management strategy, including deterring an adversary from escalating across the nuclear threshold and restoring deterrence if ever it fails, would be better served by reducing nuclear integration rather than by maintaining or increasing it. These critiques typically reduce integration to just its third element—limited response options—and advance one or more of three basic arguments. 

U.S. Army Col. Phil Brooks observes a live-fire demonstration as two High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rockets are fired during Anakonda 2016, the Polish-led exercise held in June that involved about 31,000 participants from more than 20 NATO and partner countries. (Photo credit: SFC John Fries/DVIDS)First, some believe efforts to ensure nuclear and conventional integration lower the nuclear threshold by making it easier for the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. These claims are often tied to the supposed pursuit of new nuclear weapons with lower yields that make them more “usable” than those in the existing arsenal. Neither this general claim nor its supporting elements are consistent with the scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization plans or the defense strategy it supports. Low-yield weapons have been a part of the U.S. stockpile for half a century, and Pentagon officials have stated unequivocally that current plans, including the life extension of the B61 gravity bomb, do not entail expanding the range of yields already available.10 More generally, despite the deliberate ambiguity inherent in U.S. declaratory policy, the notion of U.S. first use for tactical advantage or for de-escalating a conventional conflict is far removed from U.S. nuclear strategy, which focuses on credible options for responding to and therefore deterring nuclear attack. 

Second, some would claim that forgoing the ability to respond in a limited way would strengthen deterrence because it would imply the threat of massive nuclear retaliation in response to even a limited attack. Eliminating limited options would thus decrease the likelihood of adversary first use. Although automatic large-scale retaliation would indeed negate any rational gains an adversary may hope to achieve through a limited attack, the threat to do so only works if the adversary believes it. The United States cannot responsibly count on all adversaries concluding that the threat of massive retaliation is always credible. It is difficult to imagine that, in the immediate aftermath of a limited nuclear attack against a U.S. ally, even critics of limited response options would advise the president to order a massive strike on the grounds that credibility demands it or that total escalation is inevitable. Removing limited options would weaken deterrence if adversaries believe available U.S. nuclear responses are far less likely to produce an acceptable outcome for the United States and its allies, let alone a desirable one. Similarly, sole reliance on large-scale nuclear response options would do a poor job of dissuading allies from seeking independent deterrent capabilities.

Given the costs of capitulating to nuclear coercion and the risks of a strategy based on threatening massive response, what would the United States gain by removing the option of a limited nuclear response? Some contend that a conventional response to limited nuclear use is the better course under any circumstances. They believe that limited options are undesirable because they make it more likely a president will unnecessarily choose a nuclear response and because pursuing them drives requirements for types of nuclear weapons that do not increase U.S. security. A purely conventional response might indeed be the best way to limit further nuclear escalation and achieve U.S. and ally war aims in some cases, but it is unreasonable to assume a priori that this will always be the case. 

Contrary to the objectives of escalation management strategy, solely continuing the conventional fight might encourage further nuclear attacks aimed at finding the U.S. and allied pain threshold or measuring the relative stakes and resolve of the two sides. This is especially likely if the adversary’s goal is to stop the conventional campaign and its initial nuclear attack fails to achieve this goal but does not elicit the type of U.S. response it most fears. Furthermore, a strategy of continuing the conventional campaign toward victory after adversary limited nuclear use would likely provide the enemy with ample time and incentive to employ additional nuclear attacks. Ultimately and in anticipation of or in response to further nuclear attacks, holding to the conventional-only response might create pressure for negotiating a cessation to hostilities at all costs, implying U.S. capitulation and an adversary’s successful implementation of its nuclear coercion strategy. 

Moreover, credible options for deterring subsequent nuclear strikes provide an essential underpinning of a conventional-only response to nuclear attack. In order to restore deterrence, the United States would need to convince the adversary that any further nuclear use would result in costs that outweigh potential gains. For example, an adversary may believe that a limited nuclear attack or even a demonstration shot will compel the United States to capitulate. If that strategy fails and the United States continues fighting, adversary leadership might resort to a nuclear strike on U.S. military forces in the theater to raise the stakes and blunt the ongoing campaign. The fact that deterrence already failed once would no doubt raise questions about U.S. defense strategy, but the likelihood of a U.S. nuclear response in this case might be perceived as higher than the chance the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapons in response to a first attack that inflicted little or no damage. 

The threat of a large-scale response might succeed in deterring follow-on attacks, but it might not be perceived as credible, particularly if the adversary has a survivable arsenal. A large-scale response may also be incompatible with the U.S. political objectives associated with the conventional fight. Thus, we find it difficult to imagine a U.S. president sustaining conventional operations after an initial nuclear attack if massive retaliation is the only nuclear option for responding to a second limited attack. 

The better course is neither to prejudge presidential decisions nor surrender the option most likely to be credible and aligned with political objectives. Some fear that calls for greater integration imply a dangerous level of confidence in U.S. escalation-control strategy. Yet, effective deterrence requires an approach to escalation risk that avoids absolutism of either extreme. Confidence in one’s ability to deliberately start a limited nuclear war between major nuclear powers and control subsequent escalation would be the ultimate miscalculation, but inherent uncertainty about one’s ability to control escalation should not translate into certainty that any nuclear use would automatically lead to uncontrolled escalation up to global annihilation. 

The point about uncertainty is that no one can know for certain what the eventual outcome would be. Virtually everyone would want the president at least to try to limit escalation following an adversary attack. Consequently, it makes no sense to voluntarily relinquish the kind of credible response options below the level of massive retaliation that every president has required since the Soviet Union first acquired the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the United States. 

Nuclear weapons are unique in their ability to inflict and deter violence and should never be treated as more powerful analogues to conventional munitions. Ensuring and strengthening integration of nuclear and conventional planning and operations is consistent with this long-standing principle. It is also critical to maintaining an appropriately balanced approach to escalation management and meeting the most salient of contemporary deterrence challenges.


1.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Remarks by Secretary Carter to Troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” September 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/956079/remarks-by-secretary-carter-to-troops-at-minot-air-force-base-north-dakota.

2.   Robert Scher, Statement before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, February 9, 2016, p. 3, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Scher_02-09-16.pdf (hereinafter Scher statement).

3.   Department of Defense, “Quadrennial Defense Review,” p. 14, March 2014, http://archive.defense.gov/pubs/2014_Quadrennial_Defense_Review.pdf.

4.   Nikolai N. Sokov, “Why Russia Calls a Limited Nuclear Strike De-Escalation,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 13, 2014, http://thebulletin.org/why-russia-calls-limited-nuclear-strike-de-escalation; Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “Coercive Nuclear Campaigns in the 21st Century: Understanding Adversary Incentives and Options for Nuclear Escalation,” PASCC Report, No. 2013-001 (March 2013); U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,” April 2016, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016%20China%20Military%20Power%20Report.pdf. See Brad Roberts, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).  

5.   David S. Yost, “The History of NATO Theater Nuclear Force Policy: Key Findings From the Sandia Conference,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (June 1992): 228-261. 

6.   Scher statement, p. 3.

7.   Ibid.

8.   Joint Defense Science Board/Threat Reduction Advisory Committee Task Force, “The Nuclear Weapons Effects Enterprise,” U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, June 2010, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ADA523661.pdf

9.   For more information, see Bob Work, speech on the Third Offset Strategy at the Reagan Defense Forum, November 7, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/628246/reagan-defense-forum-the-third-offset-strategy

10.   Scher statement.

Vincent A. Manzo is a fellow in the Defense and National Security Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Aaron R. Miles is a fellow at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The views are those of the authors.

Deeper integration between conventional and nuclear planning and operations is essential to ensure that U.S. nuclear weapons can continue to effectively fulfill their fundamental deterrence role in the 21st century.

The Feasibility of Ending HEU Fuel Use in the U.S. Navy

November 2016

By Sébastien Philippe and Frank von Hippel

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has sought to remove weapons-useable highly enriched uranium (HEU) containing 20 percent or more uranium-235 from as many locations as possible because of concerns about the possibility of nuclear terrorism.

President Barack Obama worked to make this effort a global priority with biennial nuclear security summits between 2010 and 2016.

The $12.9 billion USS Gerald R. Ford is the lead ship in a new class of aircraft carriers powered by two nuclear reactors using highly enriched uranium fuel. Already about two years behind schedule, the U.S. Navy’s costliest warship was scheduled for delivery earlier this year but is facing further delays amid Pentagon questions about the performance of key systems. (Photo credit: Chris Oxley/Huntington Ingalls Industries)The primary focus of this HEU cleanout strategy has been on replacing HEU civilian research reactor fuel and uranium “targets” used in the production of medical radioisotopes with non-weapons-usable low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel and targets. Eliminating the use of HEU in naval fuel was not on the agenda. Yet, naval reactors account for more than half of global HEU use and most of the global stockpile of HEU for nonweapons use.1 As the phase-out of other uses continues, naval reactors will become increasingly dominant among nonweapon users of HEU unless actions are taken to convert them as well.

Given the focus after the September 11 attacks on reducing the possibility of nuclear terrorism, prioritizing the elimination of civilian uses of HEU was understandable. The security at most civilian sites is typically much lower than at sites where naval fuel is fabricated and stored, but the continued use of HEU for nonweapons purposes has implications for nuclear weapons proliferation.

The proliferation implications of the acquisition of nuclear-powered military vessels by non-nuclear-weapon states has been a cause of concern for almost 30 years.2 Yet, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) allows non-nuclear-weapon states to produce HEU for naval reactor fuel. Furthermore, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement permits them to remove HEU from safeguards for “non-peaceful activities” other than nuclear explosives.3 

Nonintrusive safeguards for the military naval nuclear fuel cycle have been proposed to address this loophole.4 Whether non-nuclear-weapon states would accept such additional “discriminatory” safeguards is uncertain. Fortunately, nuclear submarines are so costly that, although some non-nuclear-weapon states have signaled their intention to build or acquire them, none has done so—yet. The example of HEU use established by the U.S. Navy and the three other navies that use HEU fuel (India, Russia, and the United Kingdom) could be used by any non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the NPT, however, to legitimize acquisition of HEU – mostly likely through indigenous domestic production – and thereby a nuclear weapons option. In fact, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran played that card at the height of the confrontation over Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, just before Iran’s 2013 election brought to power a leadership more interested in making a deal.5 

Thus, although the primary rationale for eliminating HEU in civilian use has been the danger of nuclear terrorism, the primary rationale for eliminating HEU as a naval reactor fuel is to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Furthermore, the inability to divert HEU from naval fuel cycles would greatly simplify the verification of a fissile material cutoff treaty.6

Conceptual Plan

The U.S. Navy accounts for about 60 percent of global naval HEU use today, or about 2.5 tons, enough for 100 nuclear weapons, each year. A July 2016 report to Congress by the Office of Naval Reactors within the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous unit of the Department of Energy, raised the possibility of converting at least U.S. aircraft carriers to using LEU fuel. The report sketched out a $1 billion, 15-year plan to do irradiation and production tests on a new LEU fuel design.7 The office believes that this fuel could replace the weapons-grade HEU fuel currently used by U.S. aircraft carriers. According to the report, a minimum of an additional 10 years would be required to build a land-based prototype reactor and a fuel production line. The whole program therefore would take at least 25 years before the first LEU core could be loaded into an aircraft carrier.

The report argues that the new LEU fuel is not suitable for submarines because it could not be used to build lifetime submarine cores without a costly increase in submarine size. This conclusion is not obvious. Also, the priority that the U.S. Navy has placed on achieving lifetime cores can be questioned. Among the six countries that deploy nuclear submarines, only the United States and the UK, which is dependent on the United States for naval reactor technology, have made it a priority to develop lifetime cores. 

LEU fuel is already used in Chinese and French naval reactors. Little is known about China’s technology, but France has been relatively open about the conversion of its navy from HEU fuel to LEU fuel starting more than 30 years ago.

The depth of U.S. nuclear naval expertise accumulated over the past seven decades is unsurpassed, including more than 30 different reactor designs, an excellent safety record, and a steady increase in the uranium density of naval fuel. Given this expertise, it should be possible for the Office of Naval Reactors to begin to produce LEU cores for all existing U.S. aircraft carriers and for newly designed U.S. submarines within about 20 years.

In any case, Congress, the White House, and the leaderships of the departments of Defense and Energy need more input before taking the decision on whether to support the proposed program or a more ambitious program that would be aimed at ending completely the production of naval HEU fuel in about two decades. During the summer of 2016, JASON, an independent group of technical defense consultants, conducted a classified review of the Office of Naval Reactors proposal. Hopefully, an unclassified summary of the JASON report will be made available. In the meantime, this article is an attempt to provide a critical, unclassified analysis based on publicly available information. 

Congressional Prodding

Thus far, discussion of shifting U.S. naval reactors to use LEU fuel has been driven by the interest of a few members of Congress. The first expression of interest appeared in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1995 as a request for a report on the use of LEU fuel instead of HEU fuel for naval nuclear reactors.

The response from the Office of Naval Reactors was negative: “[T]he use of LEU in U.S. naval reactor plants is technically feasible, but uneconomic and impractical.”8

Two decades later, however, a request in the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act for an update elicited a more positive response from the office. “[R]ecent work has shown that the potential exists to develop an advanced fuel system that could increase uranium loading beyond what is practical today while meeting the rigorous performance requirements for naval reactors. Success is not assured, but an advanced fuel system might enable either a higher energy naval core using HEU fuel, or allow using LEU fuel with less impact on reactor lifetime, size, and ship costs.” The report added that “[d]evelopment of an advanced fuel system would help maintain the unique naval nuclear technology base…. Once ongoing new ship design work is complete, it will not be practical to sustain all of the [Office of Naval Reactors] unique technology capabilities or develop an advanced fuel system without other sources of funding.”9

The office therefore was proposing a deal: It would examine the option of developing LEU fuel to convert ships using HEU fuel in exchange for funding that would sustain its fuel development team and infrastructure until it is time to develop the next new naval propulsion reactor.

Congress responded in the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization and energy and water appropriations acts with $5 million and a request for a research and development plan. In its 2016 report, the NNSA responded with a plan to develop and test the advanced LEU fuel and build a laboratory-scale production line. The LEU fuel would be enriched to 19.75 percent uranium-235 (U-235), just below the 20 percent threshold where enriched uranium is defined to be HEU and weapons usable.10 The HEU currently used in U.S. naval fuel is enriched to 93 percent and was originally produced for use in Cold War nuclear warheads. 

If funded by Congress, the R&D program would be launched in fiscal year 2018 with a 15-year budget that would average about 4 percent of the Office of Naval Reactors’ fiscal year 2016 budget level.11

Proposed Program 

In the preface to the 2016 report, the current director of the Office of Naval Reactors, Admiral James Caldwell, observes that the plan has “the potential to deliver a fuel that might enable an aircraft carrier reactor fueled with LEU in the 2040s [but that] the fuel is unlikely to enable converting current life-of-ship submarine reactors to LEU.” 

The U.S. Navy currently has 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in operation. The USS Gerald R. Ford, the lead ship of a new class of aircraft carriers, is in precommissioning status. The nuclear submarine fleet currently numbers 75. Five new Virginia-class attack submarines are under construction, and a new class of ballistic-missile submarines, the Columbia class, is being designed for production beginning in fiscal year 2021.12 Each of the aircraft carriers has two propulsion reactors that are much more powerful than the single reactors that power the submarines. The aircraft carriers are refueled once in the middle of their 50-year design lives. 

The latest generation of U.S. attack submarines, the Virginia-class, however, is equipped with cores designed to propel them for their entire 33-year design lives. The cores of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines also are being designed to propel them for their full (42-year) design lives. The basis for the Office of Naval Reactors’ conclusion that U.S. nuclear submarines could not be converted to LEU use was that LEU cores of the same size as the current HEU cores would not provide enough energy to last a submarine’s lifetime.

Advantages and Disadvantages 

The pursuit of lifetime cores is a U.S. design choice justified by the fact that, in the past, the lengthy process of refueling has reduced U.S. submarine availability. The UK, whose submarines are based on U.S. technology and fueled by U.S. HEU, has made the same choice. 

The first U.S. nuclear submarines had reactor compartment hatches to facilitate refueling operations,13 but the United States and UK abandoned refueling hatches in later designs. It therefore became necessary to cut open the submarine hulls to access the reactors and then carefully weld the hulls shut again after refueling. This was a difficult process, requiring extreme quality control to maintain the strength of the hull structure. According to the 1995 report of the Office of Naval Reactors, refueling added eight to 10 extra months in dry dock to a long engineering overhaul. 

Refueling French submarines, which are equipped with hatches above the reactor compartment, takes weeks at most.14 The U.S. Navy has not explained publicly what operational advantages are achieved by removing refueling hatches from its nuclear submarines. Diving depth and quietness have been mentioned, but hatches can be designed so that they are no weaker than other parts of the hull. Indeed, the United States has installed large hatches for other purposes, most notably the three rapid-replenishment logistic hatches on Ohio-class submarines.15 The submarine deck typically covers the seams associated with the hatches so that they do not create turbulence and noise. One of France’s oldest Rubis-class nuclear attack submarines was quiet enough so that, in a war game in 2015, it reportedly “sank” a U.S. aircraft carrier and a number of its escort vessels.16 

France and Russia and possibly China refuel their submarines regularly. France, which has been operating LEU-fueled naval reactors for more than 30 years, refuels every seven to 10 years during its submarines’ general engineering overhauls. In its new Suffren-class submarines, average fuel enrichment has been reduced to less than 6 percent by increasing the volume of the core without increasing the mass or volume of the reactor.17 Using LEU fuel of commercial-level enrichment avoids a cost that the United States will face when its current supply of excess Cold War HEU runs out and it has to build a special enrichment plant to produce either HEU or 19.75 percent-enriched LEU for its naval reactors. 

Although further optimization could lead to a Suffren-class submarine core life of 20 years, hardware upgrades and required maintenance require a long overhaul every 10 years in any case, and refueling does not significantly impact the duration of the overhauls. Visual and ultrasonic inspection of the reactor pressure vessels and their primary piping can take up to three months, but are done in parallel with other operations conducted at each long overhaul.18 To isolate the reactor work from work on other parts of the submarine, a mobile workshop is hermetically sealed to the hull above the reactor compartment.19

When problems occur in the nuclear propulsion systems of U.S. and UK submarines, the absence of a refueling hatch can result in long outages. Repairing a faulty weld in piping near the reactor of a Virginia-class submarine has kept the submarine in dry dock for two years thus far, and three other submarines may have the same problem.20 Discovery of a problem in the fuel used in UK ballistic missile submarines will require the replacement of the lifetime core of at least one and perhaps all of them.21 

Finally, lifetime cores will only last the lifetime of a submarine if the submarine is kept on a strict energy budget. This issue came up in 2003 when the director of the Office of Naval Reactors informed Congress that the increased fraction of time at sea for U.S. attack submarines and the increased transit speeds to their stations that had been required since September 11, 2001, could substantially reduce the longevity of Virginia-class submarines.22 

The LEU fuel design being considered by the Office of Naval Reactors would contain a higher density of uranium than current HEU fuel but a lower density of the chain-reacting isotope, U-235, because of its lower enrichment. The 2016 report states that “[a]n LEU-fueled submarine with this [new] fuel is expected to require at least one refueling, or the reactor (and hull) would need to be increased in size correspondingly.”

The “at least one refueling” statement, i.e., at least two cores in the lifetime of the submarine, gives a measure of the increase in the uranium density of the proposed new LEU fuel because the report states that if LEU were substituted for HEU in the existing lifetime cores of Virginia-class submarines, they would have to be refueled “as many as three times,” or up to four cores in the lifetime of a submarine. The 1995 report made the same statement and added that a lifetime LEU core would have three times the volume of an HEU core at the same level of technology. On the basis of these statements, the new higher-density fuel presumably would make possible an LEU lifetime core with a volume only twice that of the current HEU lifetime cores.

The Office of Naval Reactors judges that the reactor pressure vessels in Ford-class aircraft carriers could accommodate LEU cores with the new higher-density fuel large enough to keep their refueling frequency to one refueling at midlife but that current submarine reactors could not accommodate lifetime LEU cores. More controversially, however, the report argues that if U.S. submarines were designed with reactor pressure vessels large enough to accommodate lifetime LEU cores, the submarine hulls would have to be made larger, which would increase their costs significantly. The Office of Naval Reactors made a similar claim in its 1995 report, in which it asserted that an LEU lifetime core with triple the volume of the HEU core of a Virginia-class submarine would require an increase in the hull diameter and its displacement by about 3 feet and 12 percent, or 1,000 tons, respectively. 

These assertions are questionable because the reactor cores are very small in comparison to the submarines that they power. The hull diameter of the smallest U.S. nuclear submarine currently in production, the Virginia-class, is about 10 meters, while the cavity in the M-140 cask that the Navy uses to ship spent submarine fuel is only 1.2 meters high, which makes that an upper bound on the height of the core.23 Increasing each dimension by a factor of 1.26 would double the volume. If the height of the existing cores were 1.2 meters, doubling their volumes in such a way would increase their heights by 0.3 meters. It is possible that the reactor vessel might have to be increased in diameter, but it is difficult to believe that its internals and control rod system could not be reconfigured to allow a small increase in core height without forcing an increase in the submarine’s hull diameter. Alternatively, the core volume could be doubled without increasing its height by simply enlarging its diameter by a factor of 1.41. The challenge of accommodating larger cores within the larger hulls of U.S. ballistic missile submarines would be less. 

An important revelation in the 2016 Office of Naval Reactors report is that irradiation tests of the new fuel design with HEU had already begun in fiscal year 2015.24 Indeed, it states that the decision on whether to do irradiation tests with LEU beginning in fiscal year 2022 would be based primarily on the evaluation of the HEU irradiation tests. Yet, because an LEU lifetime core is approximately two times larger, its fuel would only have to demonstrate that it performed well up to about half the irradiation level of the HEU core, measured in terms of fissions per cubic centimeter. Therefore, the new fuel design possibly could be useable for LEU fuel but not HEU fuel. On the other hand, if the tests were successful up to the irradiation level that would be required for an HEU core, the United States would have a choice of an LEU core or a more compact HEU core. In that case, the decision on whether to use the new fuel design with LEU fuel for nonproliferation reasons or the higher-performance HEU cores would depend on the priorities of future U.S. governments. The enacted fiscal year 2016 authorization and appropriation bills make clear, however, that congressional support for this program is based on the belief that the new fuel design should be used with LEU fuel. 

Deployment Costs

The Office of Naval Reactors report estimates that production and testing of advanced cores would require at least an additional 10 years beyond the 15-year R&D program and cost several billion dollars. The projected costs include $600 million for a new fuel production line and “[s]everal billion dollars” for a new land-based reactor for testing a prototype core.

On average, this program would cost several times as much annually as the R&D program. The office also estimates that LEU cores will cost 25 to 35 percent more than HEU cores. 

A nuclear reactor vessel is lowered into a French ballistic missile submarine, Le Terrible, which runs on low-enriched uranium fuel. (Photo credit: DCNS)Congress might balk at these costs. A careful examination of the estimates to determine whether they are justified will be important. 

Land-based prototype reactor. The Office of Naval Reactors once had a number of prototype reactors for training and fuel testing. It currently has only one, originally built as a prototype of the S8G reactor that powers the current generation of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. About $1.6 billion is currently being spent to overhaul and modernize the reactor and to manufacture a new core of the type that is to be used in the next-generation U.S. ballistic- missile submarine.25 The refurbishment of the S8G, to be completed in fiscal year 2021, will allow it to operate for another 20 years, until fiscal year 2041.26

Given that the prototype will be 63 years old in 2041, the Navy may need a new training and prototype reactor in any case. It therefore may not be fair to charge its entire cost to the LEU fuel development program. 

Furthermore, most naval cores are no longer tested in prototype. The director of the Office of Naval Reactors testified in 2013 with regard to the use of a new higher-density HEU fuel in the cores for the new ballistic missile submarines, saying that “[w]e did not have to build prototypes and do direct testing, but we could do that modeling in the high-performing computer.”27 The primary use of the S8G prototype today is for training naval reactor operators. 

New fuel production line. The Office of Naval Reactors report asserts that if LEU fuel is used in U.S. aircraft carriers and HEU fuel is used in U.S. submarines, two production lines will be required. Yet, there are straightforward, nondestructive techniques to verify that LEU has not mistakenly been substituted for HEU in fuel or vice versa. Unless the new LEU fuel is very different in terms of the fabrication techniques involved, it is difficult to understand what would justify the cost of an entirely new production line. Currently, diverse HEU fuels are apparently manufactured on the same line. The fuel assemblies for the aircraft reactors are much longer than those for the submarine reactors, and the cladding of the fuel for the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines is of a different material than that for the Virginia-class cores.28 Their production is most likely kept separate by processing the different fuels in separate batches during the different stages of production. 

LEU fuel cost. The most important long-term issue will be whether LEU fuel will be much costlier than HEU fuel. If so, there will have to be a debate over whether the nonproliferation benefit is worth the cost. The Office of Nuclear Reactors indicates that the two HEU cores for the reactors on the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier cost about $1.5 billion and that LEU cores would cost 25 to 35 percent more. The reasons given for the cost increase are “[m]anufacturing and overhead costs [that] are expected to increase for the more complex fuel fabrication, LEU material costs, costs to down blend HEU to provide initial LEU fuel, and inefficiencies related to supporting separate LEU and HEU production lines.”29 

The fuel designs are secret, so it is not possible to comment on the relative complexity of the current HEU fuels and the proposed LEU fuel. With regard to the other arguments, however, there will be an extra cost in the near term for blending HEU down to 19.75 percent LEU; but in the long term, when the supplies of excess Cold War HEU are exhausted, it would be somewhat less costly to produce LEU for several reasons, including the lower security costs at the enrichment and fuel fabrication plants and for transport and storage of the LEU. In the 2016 Office of Naval Reactors report, it is estimated that security costs at the Navy’s two nuclear fuel-fabrication facilities would be reduced by about $30 million per year if they no longer handled HEU. The issue of supporting two production lines has already been discussed.

Accelerated Timeline 

According to the timeline in the Office of Naval Reactors 2016 report (see figure 1), the office would determine in fiscal year 2032, after the evaluation of the first irradiation tests of LEU fuel specimens, whether the LEU naval fuel is technically viable. Yet, the ongoing irradiation tests with HEU of the new fuel design that are to be completed at the end of fiscal year 2020 are of the same fuel design and therefore should provide the same information. Indeed, it should be possible to examine some of the HEU fuel samples after the halfway point of the irradiation tests in fiscal year 2018, when they will have reached irradiation levels beyond those required to qualify LEU fuel. If the conclusions from the HEU fuel irradiation and fabrication tests are positive, the program to test prototype LEU fuel and develop production capacity could be launched in the early 2020s, a decade earlier than in the proposed plan, and deliver LEU cores for aircraft carriers starting in the 2030s.

If decisions are made with Defense Department and congressional support to design the next-generation attack submarines, notated as SSN(X), to accommodate large lifetime LEU cores or with hatches that would allow quick midlife refuelings, they too could be equipped with LEU cores. If the SSN(X) is deferred in favor of continuing with Virginia-class attack submarines, a new larger reactor vessel might be included in the major redesigns that often occur between “blocks” of production of a submarine class. The Block V Virginia-class submarines that are to be purchased starting in fiscal year 2019, for example, will have a 70-foot “payload module” added immediately in front of the nuclear reactor compartment, with four large tubes that could store and launch up to seven Tomahawk cruise missiles each at a cost of about $300 million per submarine.30 It would be too late to install LEU cores in the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines that are already at an advanced design stage, but if and when they are replaced, their replacements too could be designed for LEU cores. In this scenario, therefore, no HEU cores would be installed after approximately 2040.

Other Countries 

Nuclear-powered vessels are very costly. Virginia-class attack submarines cost about $2.7 billion each, Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines are projected to cost twice as much, and Ford-class aircraft carriers twice as much again.31 This results in the club of countries with nuclear-powered ships being very small. For nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, it is almost a club of one, with the United States having 11 aircraft carriers and France one. Only six countries have nuclear-powered submarines: the United States, Russia, France, the UK, China, and India. Of these, four use HEU fuel, and two use LEU fuel. 

Among the HEU fuel users, the UK is tied to the United States by technology and HEU supply. Therefore, if the United States switched to LEU fuel, the UK presumably would as well. The reactors that dominate Russia’s current submarine fleet have zoned cores with enrichments much lower than those used by the United States and UK, ranging from 21 percent U-235 in the core interiors to 45 percent U-235 at their peripheries, and are designed to be refueled every 10 years or so with normal usage.32 Technically, therefore, it would be much easier for Russia to switch its submarines to LEU fuel than for the United States. In fact, the reactors on Russia’s next-generation, civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers are to be fueled with LEU.33 India’s submarines appear to be based on Russian designs. If the United States and UK switched to LEU fuel, it is possible that Russia and India would do so as well, thereby ending all global use of HEU for naval fuel and thereby potentially for all non-nuclear weapons uses. 


The Office of Naval Reactors has responded to congressional interest with a serious plan to develop a new higher-density fuel that could facilitate conversion of naval reactors to LEU fuel. It sees the LEU fuel of potential interest for aircraft carriers but not for submarines because lifetime LEU cores would not fit into current reactors and reactors designed for larger lifetime cores would not fit into submarines of the current size. The first point is more credible than the second. Furthermore, if the Navy were willing to design a refueling hatch into its submarines, the time penalty for refueling would not be significant.

The office believes that testing a core would require a new land-based prototype reactor costing several billion dollars. The government will have to decide in any case whether to build a new training and prototype reactor to replace the aging S8G reactor in West Milton, New York.

The office also estimates that LEU cores will cost 25 to 35 percent more than HEU cores. The effect on cost of the “more complex” fabrication of the LEU fuel is difficult to assess, but the other arguments for higher cost are not persuasive.

Finally, the office estimates that if the fuel development program is successful, it will be possible to begin building new LEU cores starting in fiscal year 2047. That schedule probably could be shortened by a decade.


1.   Frank von Hippel, “Banning the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium,” International Panel on Fissile Material Research Report, No. 15 (March 2016), p. 10 (table 2).

2.   Marie-France Desjardins and Tariq Rauf, Opening Pandora’s Box? Nuclear-Powered Submarines and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, 1988).

3.   Greg Thielmann and Wyatt Hoffman, “Submarine Nuclear Reactors: A Worsening Proliferation Challenge,” ACA Threat Assessment Brief, July 26, 2012, https://www.armscontrol.org/files/TAB_Submarine_Nuclear_Reactors.pdf.  

4.   Sébastien Philippe, “Safeguarding the Military Naval Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” Journal of Nuclear Materials Management, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Spring 2014).

5.   “Iran May Need Highly Enriched Uranium in Future, Official Says,” Reuters, April 16, 2013.

6.   Chunyan Ma and Frank von Hippel, “Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2001): 86-101.

7.   National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), U.S. Department of Energy, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel: Report to Congress,” July 2016, http://fissilematerials.org/library/doe16.pdf

8.   Director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Nuclear Propulsion,” 1995, p. 1, http://fissilematerials.org/library/onnp95.pdf

9.   Office of Naval Reactors, U.S. Department of Energy, “Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores: Report to Congress,” January 2014, p. 5, http://fissilematerials.org/library/doe14.pdf

10.   Alexander Glaser, “On the Proliferation Potential of Uranium Fuel for Research Reactors at Various Enrichment Levels,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2006): 1-24.

11.   NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel,” table V.B.1. The Office of Naval Reactors is funded through both the Department of Energy and the Navy. The Energy Department appropriation for this office for fiscal year 2016 was $1.4 billion, and the Navy appropriation was $0.5 billion. Office of Chief Financial Officer, U.S. Department of Energy, “FY 2017 Congressional Budget Request: National Nuclear Security Administration,” DOE/CF-0119, Vol. 1, February 2016, p. 607; U.S. Department of Defense, “Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission; Research, Development, Test & Evaluation, Navy: Budget Activity 4,” Vol. 2, February 2016, p. 465.

12.   Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Department of the Navy, “Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2017,” July 2016, p. 5, table 1, https://news.usni.org/2016/07/12/20627.

13.   See, for example, the account of the defueling of the second U.S. nuclear submarine, the USS Seawolf. C.V. Moore, “Defueling of the S2G Reactor,” Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, May 1959, p. 2.

14.   The defueling and refueling of the Améthyste (a Rubis-class submarine) took five days during its 2005 overhaul. “Maintenance des sous-marins nucléaires: Les performances au rendez-vous,” Mer et Marine, October 25, 2005, http://www.meretmarine.com/fr/content/maintenance-des-sous-marins-nucleaires-les-performances-au-rendez-vous

15.   For a photograph of one of these hatches open, see https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/USS_Michigan_(SSBN-727).jpg. It appears to have a diameter of at least two meters. 

16.   Lyle Goldstein, “How to Sink a U.S. Navy Carrier: China Turns to France for Ideas,” National Interest, December 13, 2015.

17.   Charles Fribourg, “La propulsion nucléaire navale,” Revue Générale Nucléaire, No. 2 (1999), p. 43. Fribourg is a former head of Technicatome, the builder of France’s naval and research reactors.

18.   Charles Fribourg, “Navires à propulsion nucléaire,” 2001, http://www.techniquesingenieur.fr/base-documentaire/energies-th4/typologie-des-reacteurs-nucleaires-42456210/navires-a-propulsion-nucleaire-bn3140/

19.   “Maintenance des sous-marins nucléaires.”

20.   “Secret Weld: How Shoddy Parts Disabled a $2.7 Billion Submarine,” Navy Times, March 27, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/03/27/minnesota-two-years-in-the-yards-virginia-class-attack-sub/81600432/

21.   “Nuclear Submarine to Get New Core After Test Reactor Problem,” BBC News, March 6, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-26463923. The UK ballistic missile submarines were refueled with the new lifetime fuel that is being used in new UK submarines. Christopher Palmer, “Management of Key Technologies in the UK Naval Nuclear Propulsion Programme,” 2011, http://fissilematerials.org/library/2011/09/management_of_key_technol.html.

22.   Frank Bowman, Statement to the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, April 10, 2003.

23.   U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Certificate of Compliance for Radioactive Material Packages, Number 9793,” rev. 15, April 11, 2012, http://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1210/ML12102A188.pdf

24.   NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel,” fig. V.B.1.

25.   Historic and proposed expenditures on the S8G refurbishment and refueling from Department of Energy Congressional Budget Requests, NNSA Volume, for fiscal years 2010 through 2017, http://energy.gov/cfo/reports/budget-justification-supporting-documents.  

26.   Admiral John Richardson, Statement before the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, April 3, 2014, p. 82.

27.   Admiral John Richardson, Testimony before the House Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, April 3, 2014, p. 85.

28.   Admiral John Richardson, Response to the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, February 14, 2013, p. 176.

29.   NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel,” p. 10.

30.   Karl Hassinger and John Pavlos, “The Virginia Payload Module: A Revolutionary Concept for Attack Submarines,” Undersea Warfare, No. 47 (Winter 2012), http://www.public.navy.mil/subfor/underseawarfaremagazine/issues/archives/issue_47/virginia.html; Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” RL32418, May 27, 2016, pp. 7-8. 

31.   O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement”; Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN[X]) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” R41129, October 3, 2016; Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” RS20643, May 27, 2016.

32.   Eugene Miasnikov, “Russian/Soviet Naval Reactor Programs,” in The Use of Highly-Enriched Uranium as Fuel in Russia, International Panel on Fissile Materials (forthcoming) (citing V.M. Kuznetsov, Power Plants of the Nuclear Submarine Fleet, pp. 31-32).

33.    G.V. Kulakov et al., “Particulars of the Behavior Under Irradiation of Dispersion Fuel Elements With the Uranium Dioxide + Aluminum Alloy Fuel Composition,” Atomic Energy, Vol. 117, No. 4 (2014).

Sébastien Philippe is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University and a member of the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Frank von Hippel, a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus at the Program on Science and Global Security.

Naval reactors account for more than half of the global use of highly enriched uranium and most of the global stockpile of HEU for nonweapons use.

Dealing With Russia and North Korea: An Interview With Siegfried Hecker

November 2016

Interviewed by Terry Atlas

Siegfried Hecker, one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons experts, served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997. He organized U.S.-Russian lab-to-lab cooperation on nuclear weapons safety and security issues at the end of the Cold War era, which is the subject of the recent book he edited, Doomed to Cooperate (2016), about that remarkable period of scientific collaboration. He is an authority on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, having visited that country seven times between 2004 and 2010. Hecker currently is a research professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. 

He was interviewed by Arms Control Today Editor-in-Chief Terry Atlas at the Arms Control Association office. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

ACT: What led you to produce Doomed to Cooperate, a history of the cooperation between U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons labs?

Hecker: The idea came from the Russian side. In 2002, on the 10th anniversary of our cooperation, which dates back to 1992 when we had a weapons-lab-directors exchange between the new Russian Federation and the United States, Vladimir Belugin, the former Russian laboratory director at the Institute of Experimental Physics [the Russian Los Alamos] suggested that we capture the history of this cooperation because, in the ‘90s, it was just remarkable. We began to work on it, and then unfortunately, he passed away. So as we were coming closer to the 20th anniversary, I had a discussion with the then-director of the institute. I reminded him that I had intended to write an article with his predecessor. He said, “Oh, there’s much too much for an article. We should write a book.” This was 2010. So that was the origin.

ACT: The lab-to-lab cooperation is quite an unheralded success story, right? 

Hecker: I think so. As the Soviet Union was falling apart, the United States was concerned about four loose-nuclear dangers: loose nukes, the weapons; loose fissile materials, plutonium and highly enriched uranium; loose people, the scientific experts; and loose exports, concerns about illicit nuclear sales. My greatest concern was the security of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. We quickly began working on these problems with the Russian laboratories. President George H.W. Bush’s primary concern was what he called the “brain drain” problem, namely the fate of the nuclear experts. We worked on all these issues. As we now look back 25 years later, there were no loose nukes, very little nuclear material leakage, essentially no brain drain, and on exports, after a few initial problems in the ‘90s, Russia is a pretty responsible exporter of nuclear technologies today. So it’s remarkable. I think the laboratories, the nuclear scientists, contributed enormously to avoiding a nuclear catastrophe. 

ACT: How is it that Cold War adversaries, particularly the folks in the nuclear complex who were steeped in secrecy and national security, managed to cooperate on these very sensitive issues. Was there a top-down mandate, or was it a bottom-up effort?

Hecker: Absolutely not top down. We were not being told to go do these things in Russia. It was essentially the initiative of the scientists. The primary reason we began to work together is that the nuclear weapons laboratories and institutes were grounded in superb fundamental science. Los Alamos scientists had connections with Soviet scientists during Soviet times, not on nuclear weapons but on fundamental science. What really triggered our ability to work together, however, was the Reagan-Gorbachev Reykjavík summit in October 1986, which led to what was called the “Joint Verification Experiment” [JVE], that is, participating in nuclear tests at each other’s test sites for the purpose of verifying a test ban treaty. At that point, it was actually the Russian nuclear weapons scientists that reached across and said, “Hey look, we want to work together. We have these scientific ideas. We’d like to pursue cooperation.” So, we pushed for cooperation from the bottom up after the governments allowed us to meet for the JVE. The Soviet scientists pushed us. I pushed Washington. Then eventually, because of President George H.W. Bush’s brain drain concern, we were finally allowed to visit each other’s laboratories. When I went to Russia in 1992 with John Nuckolls, then-director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, we toured through their laboratories. What they showed us was remarkable. We looked at these guys, and it was like looking in a mirror.

ACT: Now we fast forward to today, and that kind of cooperation is an increasingly distant memory. What’s the consequence of the current strained relationships in terms of nuclear security issues?

Hecker: I think today the primary problem is isolation. First of all, you can’t do science in isolation, and the Russian scientists know that. So they’re not happy being isolated. However, the [Russian] government and the security services at this point want to restrict access to the Russian nuclear facilities. We had good access for over 20 years, and they also had good access to our facilities. They were in Los Alamos. They were at Lawrence Livermore and at Sandia labs. We knew all along it had to be reciprocal—if we wanted them to accept some of the ways that we do security, we had to show them how we do it in our places. We did that, and now, for the most part, that cooperation is cut off. But quite frankly, part of the cooperation was cut off by the American government. After Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the American government’s approach was, “[I]t can’t be business as usual.” That filtered down to the scientific interactions. Now, interactions between the nuclear scientists on both sides are being held hostage to political differences. 

ACT: You’ve had 20-plus years in which you were able to work on those nuclear safety and security issues. So at this point, is a danger still there? 

Hecker: In terms of loose nukes, first of all, they’ve always had it under quite good control, but they were in a demanding environment. Now they are, let’s say, in as good as shape as we are. As for loose nuclear material, they made enormous improvements by joint cooperation with the United States. They’re in quite good shape as far as that goes. As for the brain drain, there is no real concern. It’s not any worse than for the United States. However, with nuclear safety, nuclear security, you’re never done. So now, the danger is if they go back and they isolate the Russian scientists again, we won’t be there to compare the best practices, compare the lessons learned from each other. That’s the danger.

ACT: There’s now talk about a new arms race as the United States and Russia modernize their systems. 

Hecker: There’s no question, on the Russian side, that they have emphasized the role of nuclear weapons in their security. If you look back at President Vladimir Putin’s statements over the past number of years and as you look at their actions, they are building new nuclear weapons. They are designing new nuclear weapons. Exactly what good that’s going to do them from a deterrence standpoint, quite frankly, is beyond me. I don’t see it as doing much good. On the American side, I know there’s much criticism on the modernization of the American complex. I personally happen to believe our nuclear complex needs to be modernized. We don’t need new weapons, in my opinion, we just need to make sure that we’re actually able to do our job within the nuclear complex. Then we’ll have a deterrent. We don’t need to enter a new arms race.

ACT: What do you make of the latest North Korean nuclear test?

Hecker: By 2010 it became clear that they’re going all out to build a nuclear weapons program and a threatening nuclear arsenal, and that’s what they’re doing. After the latest test, one has to conclude that now they must have the capability to mount those weapons on missiles that can reach Japan and South Korea and then eventually the United States. That’s not what I worry about the most. I worry that when a country builds that sort of capability, it changes the strategic dynamics with its neighbors.

ACT: What’s your best estimate of how many weapons they could have now, and what’s the growth trajectory?

Hecker: It looks like they can produce about one bomb’s worth of plutonium a year and perhaps six per year of highly enriched uranium. They may have the capacity to make approximately six to eight bombs per year. By the end of this year, they have enough material, we believe, for 20 to 25 nuclear weapons.

ACT: What is the implication for proliferation concerns, particularly providing either state or nonstate actors with technology or materials? 

Siegfried Hecker (third from right) with officials and technicians at the plutonium laboratory at the Yongbyon nuclear complex in August 2007. (Photo credit: Siegfried S. Hecker)Hecker: From 2004 to 2007, my greatest concern about North Korea was the possibility of export. At that time, we had reason for concern because the North Koreans were known to have exported uranium hexafluoride to Libya and they had built a plutonium-production reactor in Syria. So it was not beyond them to actually do that. Today, I’m less concerned because, quite frankly, their customer base has sort of dried up, that is, it has fewer potential customers. Now one is concerned about export to [the Islamic State] or [other] terrorists. I don’t believe that North Koreans would sell a nuclear weapon. I don’t think they would sell the plutonium. I am not as concerned today about the proliferation or the export of their technologies, unless they become totally desperate. I’m much more concerned about how it affects their relationships with South Korea and the United States and having an overconfidence in their overall capabilities because they have this nuclear overhang. Also, what if there is real turmoil in the country? When they had a handful of bombs and 30 kilograms of plutonium only, you could see as to how one might be able to take care of that. You’re now talking about 20 bombs and hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium, and you don’t know where it is. That’s what I worry about. I don’t worry anywhere near as much about missiles reaching the U.S. mainland at this time. That’s what all the talk is about right now, and of course, our military has to pay attention to that. But what’s much more dangerous is what’s going to happen in the immediate vicinity.

ACT: What about the administration’s strategy of strategic patience?

Hecker: It’s been a total failure. This isn’t just an Obama failure. There was an enormous failure during the George W. Bush administration. That was, in essence, when we sort of let the cat out of the bag with the altercation in October 2002, accusing [North Korea] of having enriched uranium and then essentially walking away from the Agreed Framework negotiated during the Clinton administration. North Korea then went ahead and proceeded with the first nuclear test [in October 2006]. It didn’t work so well, but that changed everything. When President Barack Obama came in, I think the initial intent was to work with the North Koreans, but they conducted a missile test and then another nuclear test. After that, there was great reluctance by the administration to work with the North Koreans. The policy was dubbed strategic patience, but it was essentially not doing much in diplomacy. During that time then, North Korea went from a handful of bombs to having a nuclear arsenal.

ACT: So your advice for the next president?

Hecker: You have to go back to diplomacy. As difficult as that might be to stomach for the United States, you just have to go back to diplomacy. The United States has been trying to get North Korea to do one big “no”—that is, no nuclear weapons—but that’s just not going to happen right now. So the three “no’s” I have proposed are no more bombs, no better bombs, no exporting. Negotiate that with North Korea, and agree to work with them on their security concerns, energy, and the economy. At least for the time being, don’t let it get worse. Now they’ve got the nuclear arsenal, so it’s going to be much more difficult. You have to roll it back through diplomacy.

ACT: For the first step, a freeze is the best that can be done.

Hecker: Yes. I don’t use the term “freeze,” but “halt.” What’s most important to halt has changed over the years. It was really important to halt nuclear tests five years ago when they only had two under their belt. That was important because there’s no way they could miniaturize a nuclear warhead to put on a missile without additional tests. Now they have conducted these additional nuclear tests. So, halting additional missile launches becomes very important—the solid-fueled missiles, the submarine-launched missiles, and of course, the long-range ones—and no more nuclear tests is still important. You also need to at least halt the production of the fissile materials. Then you work your way diplomatically toward rolling back the nuclear weapons program and eventually eliminating it. 

Hecker discusses his experiences cooperating with his Russian counterparts in the aftermath of the Cold War,  his concerns about the breakdown in relations with Russia, and North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal.

BOOK REVIEW: The Era of U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cooperation

November 2016

Reviewed by Nickolas Roth

Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Greatest Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers
By Siegfried S. Hecker, Bathtub Row Press, 2016, 976 pp.

The social and economic chaos of the Soviet Union’s collapse engulfed its nuclear weapons complex as well, potentially putting at risk thousands of nuclear weapons and enough nuclear material to make tens of thousands more. Recognizing the danger this posed to the world, U.S. and Russian scientists in 1992 began an unprecedented two-decade-long collaboration focused on strengthening Russian nuclear safety and security, reducing proliferation risks, and advancing nuclear science. Policymakers put their jobs on the line, and committed scientists who were designing ways of obliterating one another’s countries only months earlier set aside differences to make possible this effort, known as lab-to-lab cooperation. Their story is the subject of Doomed to Cooperate.

The two-volume set, edited by former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, a key U.S. figure in the lab-to-lab work, is one of only a handful of sources and by far the most comprehensive in which participants offer firsthand accounts of what they did, the obstacles they encountered, the solutions they improvised, and more. The book will stand as the standard reference on their work for years to come. Unfortunately, although Hecker’s narrative effectively weaves together those accounts, there is so much raw material in the book that it is sometimes difficult to unearth its gems. 

The volumes include testimonies of more than 100 Americans and Russians involved in different elements of the lab-to-lab cooperation. More than 90 articles are organized into six sections describing different aspects of the cooperation. The first volume summarizes the multiyear process of laying the groundwork for lab-to-lab cooperation and joint work involving nuclear weapons and nuclear materials safety and security. The second volume focuses on joint efforts to prevent “brain drain” within the Russian nuclear establishment and the proliferation of nuclear expertise, as well as on broader cooperation on nuclear science and stockpile stewardship. 

Doomed to Cooperate provides important lessons for policymakers in each country who, just as they were more than two decades ago, are scrambling to cope with the rapidly changing relationship between the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers. The title reflects the seemingly anachronistic perspective of the scientists who found, as Russian former First Deputy Minister of Atomic Energy Lev Ryabev put it, that the “problems posed by nuclear energy or nuclear weapons activities were global and interconnected.” Therefore, the United States and Russia were “doomed to work on these things together, which pushed us toward cooperation.” 

These volumes provide a chorus of on-the-ground perspectives from Russian and U.S. lab-to-lab participants about the importance of nuclear cooperation for the benefit of both nations and the broader world. The book’s central message, coming at a time when communication between the United States and Russia has been mostly reduced to military posturing, is that continued scientific cooperation between the United States and Russia is critical for national security and scientific advancement.

Mutual Respect and Trust

Mutual respect and a growing trust formed the foundation of the relations between U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons scientists. Hecker observes that “scientists and engineers want to create new knowledge, develop new technologies, and build things. Doing so together in early lab-to-lab projects built professional respect, which, in turn, made it easier to establish trust. We formed true partnerships that benefited both sides.” Russians were eager to collaborate with Americans whom they considered their scientific peers. U.S. nuclear weapons scientists wanted to develop a greater understanding of their Russian counterparts and were concerned about how the collapse of the Soviet Union was degrading Russian nuclear weapons safety and security. 

Former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker (right) greets Yuli Khariton, the Soviet physicist regarded as the chief designer of Russia’s first atomic bomb, during a visit to the once-secret Russian nuclear city of Sarov in February 1992. (Photo credit: Siegfried S. Hecker)This relationship developed slowly and was built on the groundwork laid in earlier work, beginning with the 1988 U.S.-Russian Joint Verification Experiment. The purpose of the experiment was to develop more accurate systems for measuring nuclear explosions. Yet, as Viktor N. Mikhailov, who eventually became the head the new Ministry of Atomic Energy and was one of the key Russian figures in ensuring the success of the lab-to-lab program, described the cooperation, the real benefit was “the chance for interpersonal communications with the American nuclear physicists.” 

The relationships that began during the experiment and the dialogue that followed inspired Hecker in 1992 to invite Russian nuclear weapons lab directors Vladimir A. Belugin of the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute for Experimental Physics (VNIIEF), located in the city Sarov, and Vladimir Z. Nechai of the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute for Technical Physics located in the city Snezhinsk, to visit U.S. nuclear weapons labs and for Russian lab directors to reciprocate (the Soviet Union considered both nuclear research cities such a secret that they did not even appear on Soviet maps). These meetings, which were the first time U.S. and Russian lab directors had visited the other’s facilities, were the catalyst for lab-to-lab cooperation. 

Soon after, lab-to-lab cooperation began making major strides in the field of nuclear science. Over the years, U.S.-Russian cooperation covered a wide range of areas, including experiments generating some of the strongest magnetic fields ever produced, work furthering understanding of plutonium, and activities that advanced computer modeling. It also helped to further health research in both countries. Just two of the laboratories participating in lab-to-lab work, Los Alamos and its Russian counterpart VNIIEF, produced more than 400 research papers that were published or presented at conferences. 

Cooperation extended to the safety and security of Russian nuclear materials under a January 1993 agreement signed by U.S. and Russian lab directors. This covered work on material protection, control, and accounting, where arguably the greatest achievements in lab-to-lab cooperation occurred. U.S. and Russian scientists conducted joint vulnerability assessments, designed equipment, and made physical protection system upgrades throughout the Russian nuclear complex. Early success in enhancing security at the Kurchatov Institute and VNIIEF led to more robust cooperation enhancing security at Russian naval and strategic rocket sites, where warheads were actually stored. Absent this cooperation, the risk of nuclear terrorism likely would be significantly higher than it is today.

The joint work increasing security for warheads at military sites is a testament to how far the level of mutual respect and trust had grown. It was an incredible risk for Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, to allow U.S. nuclear weapons lab officials into Russian nuclear weapons storage sites. Early on, Russian officials would only allow a limited number of U.S. personnel at naval sites. 

Russian officials also required that U.S. work with the navy be kept a secret. “We were not allowed to tell anyone outside of our program, in Washington or among colleagues at the labs, what we were doing. We promised we wouldn’t talk about this work and that we would safeguard their sensitive information. While the information was not classified, we kept everything protected as if it were secret,” said Byron Gardner, who led the U.S. site security upgrade program. This also required significant trust from U.S. officials, including Rose Gottemoeller, who, as deputy undersecretary of energy for defense nuclear nonproliferation, had “moved mountains,” in Gardner’s words, to secure approval for U.S. cooperation with the Russian Navy.

Climate Changed

Today, the political environment for U.S.-Russian cooperation is far different than it was 20 years ago. Nuclear cooperation between the two countries had been slowly declining for some time, but things truly fell apart in 2014. Responding to the conflict in Ukraine, the United States cut off cooperation with Russia on nuclear energy. In response but also as a result of long-standing disagreements over implementation, Russia cut off nuclear security cooperation with the United States. Since then, the relationship has eroded further. This year, Russia suspended an agreement with the United States to verifiably eliminate plutonium stocks, citing problems with the broader political relationship between the two countries; suspended a 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement for nuclear energy research and development; and terminated an arrangement on feasibility studies for converting Russian research reactors from using highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium. 

Practically speaking, the impact of Russia’s decision to cancel these cooperative initiatives was negligible because the plutonium disposition agreement needed to be renegotiated, no research and development cooperation was taking place, and the feasibility studies had been completed. Yet, these actions sent a clear message that Russian leaders presently are opposed to even the most rudimentary nuclear cooperation with the United States. 

Siegfried Hecker and colleagues from the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories visit a laser laboratory during their pathbreaking 1992 visit to Sarov, a center of nuclear weapons design and production known in the Soviet era as Arzamas-16. (Photo credit: Siefried S. Hecker)The U.S.-Russian relationship has become so damaged that even production of this book was affected. Doomed to Cooperate was originally supposed to be a collaboration between Hecker and his Russian colleagues Evgeny Avrorin and Rady Ilkaev (his counterparts as directors of the two main Russian nuclear weapons laboratories during the peak of lab-to-lab cooperation) and published in English and Russian. In 2015, Hecker’s Russian colleagues informed him that the political circumstances “would no longer allow” them to publish a single book. Instead, Avrorin and Ilkaev are going to publish a Russian edition with their own separate overviews and introductions, different from those that appear in the English version. 

The cessation of cooperation on nuclear security, proliferation, and science is cause for serious concern. The lab-to-lab program succeeded in improving Russian nuclear security, but there is still more work to do. Vladimir I. Yuferev, a VNIIEF scientist, argues that Russian nuclear security culture and nuclear material accounting systems need to be strengthened further, and his VNIIEF colleague Georgy M. Skripka argues that the United States and Russia need to “focus on countering nuclear terrorism.” Moreover, there is the possibility that Russian nuclear security could erode. Yuferev suggests a likely result of ending U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation is that funding for Russian nuclear security will decline. Yet, current relations are preventing the United States and Russia from working together to address these issues.

As the testimonies in Doomed to Cooperate demonstrate, the personal relationships between U.S. and Russian scientists that developed in the waning years of the Cold War were critical in addressing the unanticipated challenges that came after the fall of the Soviet Union. Despite significant suspicion between the United States and Russia, these relationships were what eventually led to the mutual trust and respect necessary for cooperative work reducing the threats of nuclear terrorism and proliferation. Today, scientific cooperation remains essential for addressing challenges such as terrorism, climate change, and nuclear proliferation and will likely be critical in addressing many others not yet anticipated. If the United States and Russia are to face the threats of the 21st century, they must rebuild the strong relationship between their scientific communities.

Nickolas Roth is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Doomed to Cooperate provides perspectives from U.S. and Russian nuclear scientists and policymakers about the challenges and successes of the technical cooperation in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia Suspends Plutonium Agreement

November 2016

By Kingston Reif

Russia announced last month that it is suspending cooperation under a 16-year-old agreement with the United States to dispose of 68 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium as relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate. 

In an Oct. 3 presidential decree, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, citing “unfriendly actions” by the United States and the “inability” of Washington to fulfill its obligations under the agreement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech at the opening session of the newly elected State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, in Moscow on October 5. The Duma on October 19 acted on his call to set conditions that would have to be met for Russia to resume cooperation under a plutonium disposal accord. (Photo credit: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)Putin also submitted a draft law to the Russian parliament outlining conditions that would have to be met for Russia to resume cooperation. These include lifting all U.S. sanctions against Russia enacted in response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, compensating Russia for the damage caused by the sanctions, and reducing the U.S. military presence on the territory of NATO member states that joined the alliance after 2000, which covers eight neighboring countries that were part of the Soviet Union or its Warsaw Pact military alliance. The parliament approved the law on Oct. 19.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Oct. 3 that Russia’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement was “disappointing.” The United States “has been steadfast since 2011 in implementing our side of the bargain, and we would like to see the Russians continue to do the same,” he said.

A Troubled Disposition History

Signed in 2000 and amended in 2010, the plutonium agreement commits the United States and Russia each to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, or enough material in total for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons. 

Under the earlier version of the deal, Russia would have turned the plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—for use in Russian light-water reactors to produce electricity. That effort stalled over programmatic, financial, and legal differences. 

Russia’s suspension of the plutonium disposal accord with the United States is a new blow to the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility under construction near Aiken, South Carolina. Completion of the project, shown in a June 20 photo, was already in doubt due to cost increases and schedule delays. (Photo credit: High Flyer/SRS Watch)In 2010 the United States and Russia signed a protocol to the agreement that allowed Russia to dispose of the plutonium using fast-neutron reactors as part of its plan to expand the use of the material in its civilian nuclear power industry. Meanwhile, the United States pledged to continue with the MOX fuel approach at a facility under construction at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina.

Under the amended agreement, both countries would begin disposition in 2018. The protocol also called for international monitoring and verification of the disposition process by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There are no indications that, in suspending the deal, Russia intends to abandon its plan to dispose of its share of the plutonium. Putin’s decree stated that the plutonium covered by the deal “is not being used for the purpose of making nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices…or for any other military purposes.”

It remains to be seen whether Moscow will allow international monitoring of the disposition process as called for under the agreement. 

The U.S. effort to dispose of its plutonium via the MOX fuel path has suffered from large cost increases and schedule delays that put the project in jeopardy, and the Obama administration announced earlier this year that it intends to terminate the project and pursue an alternative approach. (See ACT, March 2016.

The alternative “dilute and dispose” process would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. That approach can be implemented decades sooner at a much lower cost and with fewer risks, according to the Energy Department. (See ACT, June 2015.)

Despite the Energy Department’s efforts to terminate the MOX fuel project, Congress, led by the delegation from South Carolina, has refused to abandon it. 

Russia argues that the new U.S. plan does not meet the terms of the deal because it does not change the composition of the plutonium from weapons grade to reactor grade and the diluted plutonium could still be retrieved and used again for weapons. The Energy Department disputes this claim, arguing that the technical effort and financial cost required to retrieve the diluted and buried plutonium would be prohibitive. 

The original agreement allows for changes in the method of disposition, subject to agreement by both parties. The United States and Russia had not begun formal talks on the alternative U.S. approach because Moscow was waiting to see whether Congress would require that the MOX fuel project be continued. 

In an Oct. 21 email to Arms Control Today, a spokesperson for the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said Russia’s decision to suspend cooperation on plutonium disposition “only reinforces the administration’s intent to pursue the already proven dilute and dispose approach, which will save tens of billions of dollars while upholding our commitment to dispose of surplus plutonium.” 

Russia Terminates Other Pacts

Russia last month also suspended a 2013 research agreement on nuclear energy and a 2010 deal on the conversion of six Russian research reactors.

The 2013 agreement provided the legal framework necessary to expand cooperation between U.S. and Russian nuclear research laboratories, institutes, and facilities in a broad range of areas, including nuclear technology, nonproliferation, fundamental and applied science, energy, and the environment. 

The 2010 deal covered feasibility studies for the conversion of six Russian research reactors that use highly enriched uranium, which could be diverted to weapons use, to low-enriched uranium. 

In an Oct. 5 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Russia was suspending both agreements in retaliation for U.S. sanctions imposed regarding the situation in Ukraine. “We can no longer trust Washington in such sensitive areas as the modernization and security of Russian nuclear facilities,” the statement added.

Russia announced in late 2014 that it planned to suspend most cooperation with the United States on the security of nuclear materials inside Russia. (See ACT, March 2015.) In addition, Russia skipped the fourth and final nuclear security summit in Washington earlier this year. (See ACT, May 2016.)

U.S.-Russian Tensions Rise

The demise of the three nuclear cooperation agreements comes amid rising tensions between the two countries over Syria, U.S. allegations of Russian cyber espionage, and Western concerns about more aggressive Russian nuclear rhetoric and behavior.

Putin announced the suspension of the plutonium accord hours before the United States said it was suspending talks with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war. 

In addition, U.S. intelligence agencies assessed last month that Russian government authorities have authorized cyberhacking of U.S. entities such as the Democratic National Committee and linked the WikiLeaks release of documents to Russian efforts to undermine the credibility of the U.S. electoral process.

The future of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty also remains in doubt as the United States and Russia allege that the other is in violation of the agreement. (See ACT, November 2016.)

At their July summit meeting in Warsaw, NATO leaders characterized as “destabilizing” Russia’s “irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric, military concept and underlying posture.” Alliance officials have expressed concern over the past two years about Russian actions such as nuclear bomber flights close to the borders of alliance members, aggressive nuclear exercises, and nuclear threats directed at NATO members. (See ACT, September 2016.)

An increasingly troubled relationship takes a toll on U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation.

UN Approves Start of Nuclear Ban Talks

November 2016

By Kingston Reif

Defying pressure from the major nuclear-armed powers, UN member states set the stage for negotiations next year on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons.

The UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with nuclear disarmament issues, on Oct. 27 adopted overwhelmingly a landmark resolution “to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”

Supporters of treaty to ban nuclear weapons, including survivors of the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, displayed banners for their cause near the United Nations on October 21. (Photo credit: ICAN)The vote was 123-38, with 16 abstentions, on the resolution put forward by Mexico, Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Nigeria, and South Africa. The full General Assembly is expected to approve the measure by year-end.

The resolution passed despite aggressive lobbying by nuclear-armed powers France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which have said they will not participate in such treaty negotiations. As a group, however, the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations were divided on the resolution.

The resolution calls for a one-day organizational meeting to be held in New York “as soon as possible” followed by two negotiating sessions in 2017 on March 27-31 and from June 15 to July 7.

The push to begin negotiations on a ban treaty reflects growing concern among non-nuclear-weapon states about the devastating humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, the rising risks of conflict between states with nuclear weapons, and frustration at the slow pace of nuclear disarmament by the nine nuclear-armed countries.

Advocates said the ban treaty would be an interim step, leaving the issue of eliminating nuclear weapons for subsequent negotiations. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Brazil’s permanent representative to the UN, said in an Oct. 17 statement that the treaty would be “part of a gradual process, which begins by setting out core prohibitions to be followed by elimination and verification arrangements.”

A majority of the nuclear-armed states voted against the resolution and cited risks of commencing negotiations on a ban treaty. 

In an Oct. 27 statement on behalf of France, the UK, and the United States, Alice Guitton, the French permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, said that although the commitment of the three countries to a world without nuclear weapons remained “unshakeable,” a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would not move toward that goal and instead would “distract attention” from more practical and verifiable disarmament steps. 

Russian Foreign Ministry official Vladimir Yermakov went much further, arguing that the hasty adoption of a legally binding prohibition would be “destructive,” “catastrophic,” “treacherous,” and “thrust the world into chaos and instability.” 

In an unexpected move, China broke ranks with the rest of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and abstained. 

The other nuclear-armed states took varied positions. India and Pakistan abstained, North Korea voted yes, and Israel, which does not officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons, voted no. 

The resolution was opposed by nearly every U.S. treaty ally in Europe and Asia, often labeled “umbrella states” because they rely on the U.S. nuclear arsenal to help protect them.

The sole exception was the Nether-lands, which abstained. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said that the Netherlands “sincerely supports a ban on nuclear weapons” but that there were problems with the resolution, according to Dutch broadcaster NOS. The lower house of the Dutch parliament had pressed the government to support the resolution. 

Sweden, which is not a member of NATO but has increased cooperation with the alliance in recent years due to concerns about Russian behavior, voted for the resolution. 

In an Oct. 17 nonpaper obtained by Arms Control Today, the U.S. mission to NATO urged alliance members and partners “to vote against negotiations on a nuclear weapons…ban, not to merely abstain.” The nonpaper warned that “efforts to negotiate an immediate ban on nuclear weapons or to delegitimize nuclear deterrence are fundamentally at odds with NATO’s basic policies on deterrence and our shared security interest.” 

The First Committee vote followed on the heels of an open-ended working group that met in Geneva this year, in which a majority of participating states expressed support for starting negotiations on a “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.” None of the nuclear-armed countries attended the sessions. (See ACT, September 2016.

The working group’s final 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.”

A Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons?

The UN General Assembly’s First Committee last month passed a resolution to start negotiations to draft a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The following are excerpts from statements during the debate:

“The argument is often heard that nuclear deterrence is indispensable for national security. Austria does not believe this. If this were to be the case, then more states could feel the need to follow the same logic and want to acquire these weapons. We would embark on a dangerous path. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any nuclear weapons use—be it intentional or accidental—could not be contained and would inevitably fall back on the users themselves…. Some voices claim that negotiating a prohibition convention would be an unrealistic option. We do not believe that a negotiating process with the participation of the majority of states lacks credibility nor realism. No similar legally-binding instrument has started with universality, so we cannot expect this here, either. We are also realistic that the elimination of nuclear weapons is not something which can be achieved overnight and by way of a prohibition convention alone. Rather, it would lay the basis on which the necessary system to ensure its complete and verified implementation could subsequently be established.”

—Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi, Austria, October 14, 2016

“Though some are dissatisfied with the pace of disarmament, we remain convinced that the pragmatic and consensus-based approach that has successfully brought us to this point remains the right one going forward. Today, some states believe the time has come to abandon this pragmatic and consensus-based approach and instead pursue a radically different path that would simply declare a ban on nuclear weapons. We must evaluate this new approach using the same criteria that we apply to our current one. Will it improve global security and stability or undermine it? Will it build a coalition for disarmament or fracture the international community? Will it lead to real reductions in nuclear weapons or be a treaty for political, not practical effect? How can such an approach be verified? The United States has carefully applied these questions to the ban treaty concept and it fails to successfully meet the necessary criteria for success….

“The current challenge to nuclear disarmament is not a lack of legal instruments. The challenges to disarmament are a result of the political and security realities we presently face. The United States is ready to take additional steps including bilateral reductions with Russia and a treaty ending production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, some states are currently unwilling to engage in further nuclear reductions, and others are increasing their arsenals. At the same time, violations of international norms and existing agreements are creating a more uncertain security environment and making the conditions for further reductions more difficult to achieve. A ban treaty will do nothing to address these underlying challenges.” 

—Amb. Robert Wood, United States, October 14, 2016

“Australia’s position on the proposal before the committee to begin negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons has been consistent and clear: we do not support such an approach. “A ban treaty would not rid us of one nuclear weapon. It would not change the realities we all face in a nuclear-armed DPRK [North Korea], or tensions among major powers. And without the involvement of states possessing nuclear weapons, the practical value of negotiating a ban treaty is a questionable exercise.”

—Amb. John Quinn, Australia, October 17, 2016

“Such a treaty is not an end in itself nor a panacea to cure an otherwise ailing regime. It will be thoroughly compatible with the [nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty and the wider nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. By doubling up on their commitment never to acquire nuclear weapons, non-nuclear weapon states which decide to take part in it will only reinforce their own credentials and the international nonproliferation regime. Further efforts needed to attain the complete elimination of nuclear arsenals can be pursued either within a framework laid out by the prohibition treaty—an approach supported by Brazil—or in parallel to it.”

—Amb. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Brazil, October 17, 2016

The landmark resolution to begin negotiations in 2017 now goes to the General Assembly for final approval. 

U.S. Seeks Rules for Armed Drones Trade

November 2016

By Alicia Jensen

The United States has won support from almost 50 countries for an initiative intended to “ensure the responsible export and subsequent use” of armed drones. Absent from the list are key supplier states such as China and Israel and important buyers such as France and the United Arab Emirates.

The State Department on Oct. 5 published a “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)” with 44 countries. By late in the month, a total of 48 countries had signed on to the U.S.-led effort, which aims to increase responsible use of drones by clarifying their legal status and promoting trade transparency.

An armed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle takes off on a mission in Afghanistan October 1. The MQ-9 designed and produced by General Atomics has nearly nine times the range, can fly twice as high, and carries more munitions than the MQ-1 Predator. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)The declaration asserts that use of armed UAVs is subject to international law, including the law of armed conflict and human rights law, and that exports should be conducted “in line with relevant international arms control and disarmament norms.” It calls for greater transparency, including reporting of military exports “where appropriate,” and for further international dialogue. 

The declaration is intended to provide a basis for talks, which are to begin in early 2017, on more detailed international standards covering such lethal systems, according to a State Department fact sheet. It is unclear whether other governments will feel much urgency to advance to more specific rules.

The effort is “both desirable and needed,” Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, said in a statement. “However, the joint declaration does not go far enough to ensure that the standards are meaningful, nor does it set a high enough bar to ensure responsible transfer and proper use of military drones.”

Although the size of trade in armed drones is unclear, sales of UAVs and related technology are growing. The total UAV market is expected to more than triple from $4 billion in 2015 to $14 billion in 2025, according to an August 2015 study by the Teal Group. This would total $93 billion in sales over the decade counting the military and commercial sectors. The study projected that the military sector will account for about 72 percent of the UAV market during the period.

The declaration states that transparency is important given that misuse of armed UAVs “could fuel conflict and instability and facilitate terrorism and organized crime.” According to a study last year by New America, countries that have used armed drones include Iran, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The United States has used armed UAVs, sometimes covertly, against alleged terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries. Human rights groups have expressed concerns about civilian casualties over the years. 

In February 2015, the United States established what the State Department describes in the fact sheet as “stringent” export rules for military UAVs and announced its intent to work with other countries on international standards on their sale, transfer, and subsequent use. “While it remains to be seen where exactly this conversation will take us, we hope that even more countries will join us at the table” with that goal in mind, said David McKeeby, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which is responsible for overseeing this effort.

The United States leads an effort to establish norms for “responsible export and subsequent use” of armed UAVs.


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