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June 2, 2022
Arms Control Today

Why We Must Reject Calls for a U.S. Nuclear Buildup

November 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

The experience of the Cold War teaches us that an unconstrained arms race has no winners, only losers. Leaders in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington need to engage in nuclear risk reduction talks, negotiate sensible and verifiable reductions of their arsenals, and refrain from building new destabilizing types of weapons rather than proceed down the dangerous path of unconstrained nuclear competition.

The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States presents its report on Oct. 12. (Arms Control Association photo)Regrettably, the final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, released in October, suggests that, in response to Russia’s nuclear and military behavior and the anticipated growth of China’s nuclear arsenal, the U.S. arsenal “should be supplemented” to add more capability and flexibility to counter two “near-peer” nuclear adversaries. The bipartisan commission, which consists of 12 national security insiders, also advises that the United States “must be ready to deter and defeat” both adversaries in simultaneous wars, enhance its missile defense capabilities, and significantly bolster its nuclear weapons capabilities, including with new theater-range weapons.

If there is a military conflict between nuclear-armed states, however, deterrence will have failed, and there will be no “winners.” Once nuclear weapons are used in a war between nuclear-armed adversaries, there is no guarantee that a nuclear war could be contained.

In the current context, any decision to increase the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear weapons higher than the levels of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) could trigger a dangerous action-reaction cycle. It would not enhance deterrence in the face of China’s growing nuclear capabilities or Russia’s existing capabilities. In response, China could deploy more nuclear weapons on an even wider array of delivery systems, and Russia would seek to match any increases in the U.S. nuclear force.

As U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted on Dec. 9, 2022, “Nuclear deterrence isn’t just a numbers game. In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race.”

The U.S. nuclear arsenal, which includes roughly 1,800 deliverable strategic warheads, 150 substrategic warheads, and thousands of warheads in reserve, still exceeds what is necessary to hold a sufficient number of adversary targets at risk so as to deter a nuclear attack.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, in an address on June 2, reiterated that “the United States does not need to increase our nuclear forces to outnumber the combined total of our competitors to effectively deter them.”

Increasing the number of nuclear weapons or adding new types of nuclear weapons to the U.S. arsenal would also be prohibitively expensive. A Congressional Budget Office report in July estimated that the existing U.S. nuclear modernization program would cost a staggering $756 billion in 2023-2032. The commission’s recommendations, if pursued, would require hundreds of billions of dollars more.

Although the commission’s report generally supports U.S. efforts to engage China and Russia in nuclear risk reduction, it seriously underplays the importance of strong U.S. leadership on arms control in preventing an unconstrained nuclear arms race. Its recommendations in this area reflect a failure of imagination, a lack of consensus, or both.

Contrary to existing U.S. policy and practice, “the [c]ommission recommends that once a strategy and its related force requirements are established, the U.S. government determine whether and how nuclear arms control limits continue to enhance U.S. security.” In reality, arms control is a critical element of such an effective national security strategy, not an afterthought. That is why the Biden administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review states that “[m]utual, verifiable nuclear arms control offers the most effective, durable and responsible path to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy and prevent their use.”

According to Sullivan, the United States is ready to engage in nuclear arms control diplomacy with Russia and other nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “without preconditions.” He emphasized that “rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework.”

New bilateral nuclear arms control limits with Russia may be difficult to achieve as long as Russia’s war on Ukraine rages. Even so, the United States could seek an executive agreement or a reciprocal unilateral arrangement verified with national technical means of intelligence that commits Russia and the United States to respect New START’s central limits on strategic arsenals until a more permanent, comprehensive nuclear arms control arrangement is concluded.

Instead of threatening to take actions that might accelerate dangerous nuclear competition, the United States must exercise prudent nuclear restraint and energetically pursue effective arms control and disarmament diplomacy with Russia, China, and other nuclear-armed states inside and outside of the NPT.

The experience of the Cold War teaches us that an unconstrained arms race has no winners, only losers. Leaders in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington need to engage in nuclear risk reduction talks, negotiate sensible and verifiable reductions of their arsenals, and refrain from building new destabilizing types of weapons rather than proceed down the dangerous path of unconstrained nuclear competition.

Reducing Tensions Over Nuclear Testing at Very Low Yield

November 2023
By Julien de Troullioud de Lanversin, Christopher Fichtlscherer, and Frank N. von Hippel

The U1a Complex is an underground laboratory at the U.S. Nevada National Security Sites where scientists conduct subcritical and physics experiments to obtain technical information about the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. (Photo courtesy of Nevada National Security Sites)Twenty-three years after Russia ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Moscow is “unratifying” but not unsigning the pact as a by-product of its war on Ukraine and related tensions with the United States.1

Such a move would contradict Russia’s previously stated commitments to help bring the CTBT into force and is another body blow to the embattled international arms control regime.

Although China and the United States have not ratified the treaty, they have signed it, effectively abided by it, and with Russia and several other states, have anchored a de facto moratorium on nuclear testing. Recent accusations made by the United States, however, have cast doubts on whether Russia and perhaps China are still adhering to their moratoriums for certain types of tests at very low yields.

With increasing nuclear tensions between great powers, these suspicions could lead nuclear-weapon states to abandon their moratoriums and resume full-scale nuclear weapons tests. It is therefore imperative that they discuss a new transparency and verification regime for very low-yield tests.

China most likely is waiting for the United States to ratify the treaty, but without a major educational and lobbying campaign backed by the White House, most Republican senators could be expected to revert to the position of their caucus, which voted against CTBT ratification in 1999.2 For the CTBT to come into force, China, Russia, the United States, and six other specific countries still must ratify it.3

According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, however, treaty signatures, unless they are withdrawn officially, obligate countries to comply with the treaty.4 All states other than North Korea have observed a testing moratorium since 1998, and North Korea has not tested since 2017.

In the absence of muffling in an enormous, mined cavity, the International Monitoring System of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) can detect nuclear tests of a yield of about 100 tons of TNT equivalent.5 That amount is less than 1 percent of the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. National and civilian seismic networks provide additional, more sensitive capabilities near former nuclear test sites. The CTBT, however, requires parties “not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.”6 It is a “zero yield” treaty.

In 2016, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States issued a joint statement asserting “that a nuclear-weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion would defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT. ”7 According to the U.S. Department of State, the United States and the other governments participating in the CTBT negotiations agreed that the treaty “prohibits all nuclear explosions that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical fission chain reaction of any kind.”8 A fission chain reaction is called supercritical when it is exponentially growing and subcritical when it dies out. This interpretation of zero yield is commonly referenced as the U.S. zero yield standard.

An article-by-article analysis of the treaty submitted to the U.S. Congress by the Clinton administration in 1997 listed some explosive experiments that the U.S. nuclear weapons design laboratories would be allowed to conduct under the treaty. These include inertial confinement fusion experiments such as the laser-driven implosions of deuterium and tritium being carried out at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility and subcritical experiments with plutonium conducted underground in Nevada by the Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories.9

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (R, front) visited the Russian nuclear weapons test site Novaya Zemlya in August, adding to Russian-U.S. tensions over the testing issue. (Photo by the Russian Defense Ministry with location confirmed by The Middlebury Institute of International Studies)The U.S. government claims that China and Russia may be violating the U.S. interpretation of the treaty by carrying out supercritical tests in steel containment vessels underground. More than six decades ago, during the 1958-1961 test moratorium and the associated negotiations that ultimately produced the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the United States carried out very low-yield supercritical tests, which at that time were referenced as “hydronuclear” tests. The purpose of these experiments was to determine whether the fission “primaries” of some warheads recently added to the U.S. nuclear stockpile were “one-point safe.” A nuclear warhead is said to be one-point safe when no significant nuclear yield can be produced if the explosive around the plutonium pit is detonated at a single point by, for example, a bullet.

In these experiments, the amount of plutonium in the pit was reduced to a level where the pit was definitely one-point safe and then the plutonium was added back bit by bit. At each step, the explosive around the pit was detonated at what was believed to be its most sensitive point until there was a measurable fission yield or the one-point safety of the primary had been established. The increments of plutonium were kept small enough so that the fission energy released would be less than that released by one pound (about 0.5 kilograms) of TNT.10 The Soviet Union also conducted such tests, in large “Kolba” vessels designed to contain explosions with total energy yields (chemical explosive plus fission) up to 50 kilograms of TNT.11 Such low-yield tests would not be detected by the CTBTO off-site monitoring instruments.

There is little interest in hydronuclear experiments in the United States today. A 2012 discussion of hydronuclear testing by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences could not “identify any significant advantage that could accrue to a state testing at…very low levels (<1 ton [TNT equivalent]).”12 The nuclear weapons laboratories are confident in the one-point safety of U.S. nuclear warheads. The focus of the laboratories is instead on carrying out subcritical nuclear tests to verify that the plutonium metal behaves as required when imploded.

In a subcritical test, an assembly of plutonium is imploded inside a containment vessel, and neutrons are introduced into the imploded mass to initiate a fission chain reaction. Because the mass remains subcritical, the chain reaction dies away. With current technical limitations on how many initiating neutrons can be introduced into the imploded plutonium mass, planned U.S. subcritical tests would generate about 10 billion fissions,13 which would release about 0.3 joules of energy, roughly equal to what would be released by the detonation of about 0.1 milligrams of TNT.

The measurement equipment required to analyze such very low-yield experiments is costly. The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is installing a $2 billion, 100-meter-long electron accelerator in a tunnel in its 300-meter-deep underground U1a subcritical testing facility in Nevada. The electrons will produce high-energy X-rays in a target outside the containment vessel to image the interior of the imploding plutonium mass. Neutrons will be injected to start the subcritical chain reaction, and gamma rays from the fissions will be measured to determine the rate at which the chain reaction dies away and thereby the degree of criticality that has been achieved.14

In 2019, the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency publicly accused Russia of “probably not adhering to the nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the zero-yield standard.”15 In 2020 the U.S. State Department indicated in its annual report, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, that this conclusion had interagency support: “Despite Russia renewing its nuclear testing moratorium in 1996, some of its activities since 1996 have demonstrated a failure to adhere to the U.S. zero-yield standard, which would prohibit supercritical tests.”16 The report stated that the evidence was classified. It also expressed concern that “lack of transparency” at China’s Lop Nur test site “raise[s] concerns regarding China’s adherence to its test moratorium, which China declared in 1996, judged against the U.S. [subcritical] ‘zero-yield’ standard.”

As noted above, a 2012 review by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences could not “identify any significant advantage that could accrue to a state testing at…very low levels(<1 ton [TNT equivalent]).” A possible motive for Russia and China to carry out very low-yield supercritical or hydronuclear experiments could be because the degree of criticality of imploded plutonium pits is much easier to measure in a supercritical test, which produces many more fissions than a subcritical experiment and therefore many more diagnostic gamma rays. If Russia and China are conducting supercritical tests, perhaps it is because they do not want to match the more than $2 billion the United States is spending on its underground electron accelerator and other diagnostic equipment required for subcritical tests.

One can only speculate how the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia has conducted more than one supercritical experiment since 1996. One possibility could be that satellite images of Russia’s Novaya Zemlya test site have revealed large containment vessels such as a Kolba vessel being taken into the testing tunnels.

Jill Hruby, administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, speaking at a recent Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) conference, says the United States has “no plans” to resume the nuclear testing it halted in 1992 but will conduct “subcritical experiments.” (Photo courtesy of NNSA)Once the CTBT comes into force, any state-party may request a short-notice, on-site inspection of an area where it believes that a nuclear explosion or even a supercritical test may have taken place. Given that none of the remaining states that must sign and/or ratify the treaty have done so in recent years, however, the CTBT entry into force is years away. In the meantime, it would be advantageous to develop and demonstrate technical confidence-building measures through new methods and protocols that could determine whether contained experiments involving fissile material are subcritical.

At the 2023 CTBTO Science and Technology Conference in Vienna, U.S. NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby, whose organization maintains U.S. nuclear warheads, offered voluntary U.S. transparency, thus creating the possibility for international cooperation.

We are open to hosting international observers for monitoring and verification research and development on our subcritical experiments…. We are also open to working with others to develop a regime that would allow reciprocal observation with radiation detection equipment at each other’s subcritical experiments to allow confirmation that the experiment was consistent with the CTBT. We have several well-considered technical ideas on how this could be effective…. I sincerely look forward to future engagement with Russia and China on participation in bi- or tri-lateral verification confidence-building measures and other technological interactions to support future arms control and nonproliferation agreements.17

To date, these transparency proposals do not appear to have been detailed publicly or transmitted in a written form, and the Russian and Chinese governments have not accepted or rejected the offer.

Yet, there is a technical method to determine the amount of fission energy released by a contained, very low-yield test months or years later, by measuring the gamma rays from the radioactive decay of fission products and from transmutation products produced in the steel containment vessel as a result of irradiation by fission neutrons (fig. 1).18 Because the yields of supercritical experiments are typically orders of magnitude larger than those of subcritical experiments, such measurements would provide relevant evidence of a breach of the U.S. interpretation of zero yield.

Note: The gamma rays are from the radioactive decays of plutonium, fission products produced by chain reactions in the plutonium, and radioactive isotopes produced in the steel alloy of the containment vessel (CV) by irradiation from neutrons emitted by the chain reactions. The lines are labeled by the energy of the gamma ray in thousands of electron volts, the designation of the decaying radioisotope and the half-life of that isotope (or the of its parent isotope when the emitting isotope is the decay product of a longer-lived radioisotope).These verification methods would not be much help if a country does not announce all contained underground experiments or if it simply buries its containment vessels, as is the current custom, making them unavailable for inspection. To enable the implementation of verification after the test, a host country would have to agree not to bury or entomb a containment vessel before it is subjected to international inspection.

Continuity of knowledge for each containment vessel could be ensured by monitoring the tunnels or shafts through which containment vessels and plutonium could be introduced into the underground experimental complex. Each containment vessel could be tagged19 or “fingerprinted”20 for later identification. It is possible that this process could be managed remotely for the most part by CTBTO inspectors. Such an arrangement might be supplemented by remotely monitored on-site seismic stations to detect and localize contained underground explosions. The United States already has demonstrated such capabilities at its test site.21

As of mid-October, neither China nor Russia had responded to the U.S. proposal for reciprocal transparency at the three countries’ test sites.22 Given the high level of tensions between Russia and the United States over the war in Ukraine and between China and the United States, and the fact that the United States has not yet transmitted a formal written proposal, that is not surprising. Hopefully, in the longer term, the U.S. offer will open a path out of the destructive debate over possible but inconsequential Russian and Chinese violations of the U.S. interpretation of the CTBT.



1. Guy Faulconbridge and Filipp Lebedev, “Russian Duma Takes First Step to Revoke Ratification of Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” Reuters, October 17, 2023.

2. In 1999, all but two Republican senators voted against ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and all but one Democratic senator voted in favor. Craig Cerniello, “Senate Rejects Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; Clinton Vows to Continue Moratorium,” Arms Control Today, September/October 1999, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/1999-09/press-releases/senate-rejects-comprehensive-test-ban-treaty-clinton-vows-continue.

3. Egypt, Iran, and Israel have not ratified the CTBT. India, North Korea, and Pakistan have not signed the CTBT. Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), “Status of Signature and Ratification,” n.d., https://www.ctbto.org/our-mission/states-signatories (accessed October 21, 2023).

4. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, May 23, 1969, 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, art. 18.

5. National Research Council, “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States,” 2012, fig. 2-8.

6. CTBTO, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT),” n.d., https://www.ctbto.org/sites/default

7. Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Joint Statement on the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Nuclear-Weapon States,” September 15, 2015, https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/09/261993.htm.

8. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, “Scope of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” n.d., https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/rls/212166.htm (accessed October 21, 2023).

9. “Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty: Message From the President of the United States,” 105th Cong., 1st sess., Treaty Doc. 105-28, p. 4 (“Activities not affected by the treaty”).

10. Robert N. Thorn and Donald R. Westervelt, “Hydronuclear Experiments,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-10902-MS, February 1987, https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/6646692.

11. National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan, “Nuclear Tests Consequences Elimination. ‘Kolba’ Containers Preservation,” May 9, 2022, https://www.nnc.kz/en/news/show/346.

12. “[O]ne benefit a State might gain from such very low yield tests would be to improve one-point safety. Such a step would not, standing alone, impair U.S. security.” National Research Council, “Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” p. 104 fn.

13. David John Funk, “Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments (ECSE): Portfolio Overview,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-UR-18-28253, March 11, 2019, p. 46, https://permalink.lanl.gov/object/tr?what=info:lanl-repo/lareport/LA-UR-18-28253.

14. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Program Management Improvements Would Benefit U.S. Efforts to Build New Experimental Capabilities,” GAO-23-105714, 2023, p. 7.

15. Hudson Institute, “The Arms Control Landscape ft. DIA Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr.,” May 29, 2019, https://www.hudson.org/national-security-defense/transcript-the-arms-control-landscape-ft-dia-lt-gen-robert-p-ashley-jr.

16. U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” June 2020, p. 50, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/2020-Adherence-to-and-Compliance-with-Arms-Control-Nonproliferation-and

17. Jill Hruby, Remarks at the CTBT Science and Technology Conference 2023, June 19, 2023, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/remarks-nnsa-administrator-jill-hruby-ctbt-science-and-technology-conference-2023.

18. Julien de Troullioud de Lanversin, Christopher Fichtlscherer, and Frank N. von Hippel, “Onsite Verification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty at Very Low Yields,” n.d., https://resources.inmm.org/sites/default/files/2021-09/a325.pdf.

19. Keith M. Tolk, “Reflective Particle Technology for Identification of Critical Components,” SAND-92-1676C, n.d., https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/7116334.

20. See Johannes Strömbom, “Natural Fingerprinting of Steel,” Luleå University of Technology, 2021, https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1568687/FULLTEXT01.pdf.

21. National Research Council, “Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” pp. 74-75.

22. Jonathan Tirone, “U.S. Offers Nuclear-Test Inspections to Ease Russia, China Tension,” Bloomberg, September 28, 2023.


Julien de Troullioud de Lanversin is an assistant professor in the Division of Public Policy at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Christopher Fichtlscherer is a doctoral graduate student at RWTH Aachen University. Frank N. von Hippel is professor of public and international affairs emeritus at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.

Given rising nuclear tensions involving China, Russia, and the United States, it is imperative that key states discuss a new transparency and verification regime for very low-yield nuclear tests.

Russia, the CTBT, and International Law

November 2023
By David A. Koplow

The recent decisions by the Russian Duma regarding the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have generated considerable legal and policy confusion. This analysis is an attempt to clarify the nature and consequences of those actions under international law.

Russia’s process is not an exercise of the “supreme national interests withdrawal clause,” which is contained in article IX of the CTBT and is common in other arms control agreements. That provision, like the rest of the treaty, is not operational until the treaty enters into force, which has not occurred. Article IX cannot be relied on by any state under the current circumstances and is not the basis for Russia’s recent actions.Instead, the next reference point is the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which sets forth the provisions regarding the conclusion, operation, and interpretation of international agreements. Article 18 of the convention establishes two circumstances under which a state is obligated to “refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty” before the treaty enters into force.

The exact scope of the CTBT’s “object and purpose” is debatable. In 2016 the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which are also the permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), issued a joint statement in which they authoritatively affirmed that a nuclear test would defeat the CTBT’s object and purpose. The entire Security Council subsequently endorsed that interpretation in Resolution 2310.

The first circumstance in which this obligation is operational is detailed in Vienna Convention article 18(a), which addresses the interval between a state signing and ratifying the treaty. That is the situation in which China, the United States, and a few others now stand regarding the CTBT. This obligation applies until the state “shall have made its intention clear not to become a party to the treaty.”

The mechanism for a state to specify its intention not to ratify a treaty, often incorrectly referenced as “unsigning” the treaty, is what the United States exercised regarding the 1998 Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court and the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty. In those cases, by expressing the intention not to ratify, the United States was released from the obligation to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of those treaties.

Russia has ratified the CTBT, so its recent actions are not governed by article 18(a). Instead, article 18(b) provides the same obligation to refrain from acts that would defeat the treaty’s object and purpose during the interval between ratification and the treaty’s entry into force “provided that such entry into force is not unduly delayed.”

In principle, a state perhaps could declare  that the CTBT’s entry into force has been “unduly delayed.” The treaty was opened for signature in 1996, but is unlikely to enter into force in the foreseeable future. Yet, Russia has not cited “undue delay.” Instead, it complained about the U.S. failure to ratify the CTBT and activities at the U.S. nuclear test site. Hence, the convention does not provide the mechanism for Russia to “unratify” the CTBT.

State practice regarding other treaties has rarely been tolerant of a withdrawal of a ratification prior to the treaty entering into force. The secretary-general of the United Nations, the usual depositary for multilateral treaties, occasionally has allowed a state to rescind a ratification without reference to or authorization by the convention. That presumably is what would happen here.

The final piece of the puzzle turns back to article 18(a) and raises the question of whether Russia’s withdrawal of its CTBT ratification also should be treated as an expression of an intention not to ratify the treaty again in the future. If so, the Duma’s action also could be interpreted as an “unsigning” of the CTBT, releasing Russia from the obligation to refrain from acts that would defeat the treaty’s object and purpose. More likely, the withdrawal of Russia’s ratification would not be interpreted as carrying that double effect, so Russia still would be regarded as a CTBT signatory obligated under article 18(a). That interpretation is reinforced by Putin’s comments about seeking “parity” with the United States regarding the CTBT; both states would now be obligated to refrain from acts that defeat the treaty’s object and purpose, including the obligation not to conduct nuclear tests.

In sum, Russia’s withdrawal of its CTBT ratification is not contemplated by the CTBT or the Vienna convention. Yet, it is an accepted, rare practice under international law. Russia thereby will achieve its objective of mirroring the United States regarding each country’s status under the treaty.

The withdrawal of ratification most likely has no practical legal effect. Russia, like the United States, would still be obligated as a signatory to refrain from acts that would defeat the treaty’s object and purpose, including nuclear testing. To date, Russia has not indicated any intention to violate its obligation under the convention by terminating its national moratorium.

David A. Koplow is the Scott K. Ginsberg Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.


Even after withdrawing its ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Russia would still be obligated to refrain from nuclear testing.

Nuclear Ban Treaty Members to Meet in November

November 2023
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

States-parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will hold their second meeting in New York on Nov. 27-Dec. 1. Amid the crisis facing the international arms control and disarmament regime, they are expected to review and continue implementing their plans for a total ban on nuclear weapons.

The TPNW, which entered into force on Jan. 22, 2021, bans states-parties from involvement in any nuclear weapons activities, including the use, threat of use, production, development, possession, and stationing of these weapons. Spearheaded by non-nuclear-armed states and civil society groups, the treaty originated from their frustration over the long stalemate among nuclear-weapon states to engage in serious nuclear disarmament as called for by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

At their first meeting, in June 2022, TPNW states-parties produced two documents aiming to advance the treaty, a 50-point action plan and a political statement. (See ACT, July/August 2022.)

They established three informal working groups to make progress during the intercessional period on important topics such as nuclear disarmament verification, victim assistance, environmental remediation, and universalization of the treaty. In addition, the action plan agreed to create a scientific advisory group, to implement gender provisions in the treaty, and to promote TPNW complementarity with existing treaties.

For the November meeting, each working group is preparing reports on their respective intersessional activities. The meeting is expected to issue a final document, according to the provisional agenda and government officials.

The “expectation of all the parties is to continue implementing the plans [and] having a meeting that reviews what was agreed in 2022 and its implementation,” María Antonieta Jaquez, coordinator for disarmament, nonproliferation, and arms control for the Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretariat, told Arms Control Today.

She suggested that the states-parties would continue following the 50-point action plan from 2022 because it “cannot be reinvented or rewritten every year.”

One key focus is universalization of the treaty. “The treaty has to continue growing,” Jaquez said. She emphasized that the participation of all TPNW states-parties, as well as states that remain outside the treaty, should be “all welcomed” and “it is important that we have as many stakeholders [join the treaty] as possible.”

Meanwhile, deepening geopolitical divides continue casting shadows over the nonproliferation and disarmament regimes. After the first TPNW meeting concluded, two NPT-related meetings failed to achieve a consensus and concluded with no substantive final documents (See ACT, September 2023.)

A contentious issue likely to be raised in November is how TPNW states-parties interpret the treaty provisions. In April 2023, Russia conducted a test launch of a missile that can carry nuclear warheads from a test site in Kazakhstan, an active TPNW member state. Although the treaty bans assistance with nuclear weapons development, it leaves the definition of “assistance” open to interpretation. Since the last meeting of states-parties, seven more states have signed the treaty, bringing the total number to 93 states, and four more states have ratified it, bringing the total to 69.

Juan Ramón de la Fuente Ramírez, Mexico’s ambassador to the United Nations, will serve as president of the second meeting of TPNW states-parties.

Working groups are expected to report on plans to advance nuclear disarmament verification, victim assistance, and other priorities.

A Not-So-Strategic Posture Commission

November 2023
By Adam Mount

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. nuclear strategy is at a crossroads.

The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States unveils its report on October 12 at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington. (Photo by Aliyah Averette of the Institute for Defense Analyses)The rapid expansion of China’s nuclear forces calls into question fundamental assumptions about how the United States can deter nuclear-armed adversaries. In this context, Congress appointed a bipartisan commission of 12 former government officials to assess the threat environment and make recommendations on the nation’s strategic posture. The final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, released in October, marks the start of an inchoate debate about how to respond to China’s buildup, the outcome of which will shape the U.S. nuclear arsenal for decades.

Although Biden administration officials clearly have articulated the challenge presented by China’s buildup, the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review presented a strategy to meet it.1 The commission’s report is the first attempt by an entity of the U.S. government to propose an answer to the problem of tripolar deterrence, defined by the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command as the need to deter “two nuclear-capable, strategic peer adversaries at the same time,”2 namely China and Russia. The Pentagon estimates that China’s deployed nuclear warheads have more than doubled since 2020, from 200 to 500, and projects them to more than double again by 2030.3 This increase, combined with expansions in Russian and North Korean nuclear forces, could double the number of nuclear weapons that U.S. forces are ordered to deter by 2035. The challenge is complicated by the need to deter what the commission calls “opportunistic or collaborative two-theater aggression.”

The problem of tripolar deterrence is far more complex than simple arithmetic. China’s buildup and the U.S. response pose significant risks to strategic stability, increasing the chance that adversaries could aggress against U.S. allies, that regional crises could advertently or inadvertently escalate to the nuclear level, and that limited nuclear use could expand into a strategic exchange. All other things being equal, a constant U.S. nuclear force cannot maintain the same strategy and hold twice the number of targets as it does now. Yet, U.S. strategy and other elements of the strategic posture do not need to be held constant. Developing a strategy to maintain strategic stability will require planners to assess a wide range of options, many of which present their own stability risks, fiscal or logistical challenges, or political problems when presented to U.S. allies and partners.

A Strategic Stability Strategy

One set of variables comprises nuclear posture: the numbers, types, positions, and alert status of U.S. nuclear forces. A strategy that depends solely on adjusting nuclear posture may ultimately succeed in holding the additional targets at risk, but may end up being unnecessarily slow or costly, may not help to deter other kinds of threats, or may inadvertently degrade strategic stability. A symmetrical response to China’s buildup is not necessarily the best response.

Many other variables could comprise critical parts of a strategy to maintain stability in the context of tripolar deterrence. For example, U.S. officials may consider how advanced conventional forces could help deter and respond to limited nuclear use in regional conflicts or affect a strategic exchange. Consistent with the Biden administration’s concept of “integrated deterrence,” officials may also seek to develop ways of imposing costs on an adversary by coordinating with allied nuclear or conventional forces or by using space, cyber-, economic, diplomatic, informational, or clandestine means to deny gains or impose costs.4 In many cases, non-nuclear options may be more flexible, credible, and less costly ways of producing the effects necessary to deter an attack.

In developing a strategy for tripolar deterrence, the U.S. president could also choose to adjust a range of parameters that structure nuclear planning, including the categories of assets that nuclear forces would target in specific contingencies, the quantity of damage required at different times after an enemy launches a strategic attack, the damage expectancy requirements attached to specific weapons systems against specific targets, or the level of risk they are willing to accept that a technological development could suddenly render a leg of the triad vulnerable. The president also may opt to issue updated guidance about how much risk he is willing to accept that an adversary could carry out a surprise disarming strategic attack or comes to doubt the credibility of available U.S. options for responding to limited nuclear use. Adjusting any of these parameters could change requirements for the number of U.S. weapons required to deter the growing arsenals of adversaries. Presidents customarily do not issue direct guidance on these kinds of specific parameters to affect nuclear planning, but they may have to do so if they intend to implement a deliberate strategy for tripolar deterrence.5

The first step toward a deliberate strategy of trilateral deterrence would be to reexamine, at a fundamental level, the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons. The primary mission that determines the size and structure of U.S. strategic forces is to limit damage to the state and its allies should deterrence fail. A preemptive counterforce strategy, which depends on striking an adversary’s nuclear force before it is launched, is difficult to imagine for several reasons, not least of which is that, even in the best of circumstances, such a scenario would expose the U.S. homeland to several dozen nuclear attacks. A retaliatory counterforce strategy is equally problematic because, even in the best of circumstances, it would represent an attempt to limit damage after a catastrophic attack has already occurred. Any complete strategy for tripolar deterrence begins with answering these basic questions: Is damage limitation the primary mission of U.S. forces and, if so, how much damage and in what circumstances?

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and the Wasp-class Amphibious Assault Ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), showcasing an array of powerful U.S. military assets, sail during exercises in the Arabian Sea in 2019. A bipartisan congressional commission wants the United States to respond to two near-peer rivals, China and Russia, by building up more nuclear forces.  (Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Wilbur)Confronting these complex questions, the commission reached a simple answer: an across-the-board buildup of U.S. nuclear forces. Its report recommends pursuing increases in the size, diversity, and alert status of every nuclear system, including multiple warheads and road-mobile options for new intercontinental missiles, more cruise missiles, more bombers postured on continuous alert with more tankers to support them, more submarines, more capability to penetrate adversary air and missile defenses, and demanding requirements for new theater nuclear options to attempt to control escalations.

Despite evidence that development on homeland missile defense interceptors has stalled, the report recommends investing heavily in new programs and expanding their mission set beyond North Korea to include an ill-defined category of coercive attacks from Russia and China.6 Collectively, the proposals would reverse decades of initiatives from presidents of both parties to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in favor of non-nuclear options that they considered more flexible. For the commission, tripolar deterrence is not a complex strategic problem but simply a deficit of nuclear weapons. Its answer to an arms race is an arms race.

The Commission’s Solution

The commission’s solution to the problem of tripolar deterrence is not a strategy. The report makes no attempt to specify the categories or numbers of targets that it believes must be held at risk and so does not provide estimates of how many additional systems to procure, when they will be required, or which to prioritize. The report rightly identifies a need to “deter or counter opportunistic or collaborative aggression” in multiple theaters, but it does not describe what this might look like or how it would affect U.S. plans and force requirements.7 Most importantly, the commission does not consider the significant risk that increases in U.S. nuclear forces could degrade crisis stability, thus increasing the risk of nuclear use. It is an arithmetic approach to the problem without the arithmetic.

Because it does not articulate its assumptions about what is required to deter U.S. adversaries, the report cannot explain why the commission believes current U.S. forces would be insufficient to inflict the required effects in relevant contingencies, the number of systems that would be required, or how a buildup in U.S. forces could meet their objectives given the likelihood that China and Russia would respond with further increases in their forces.8 The commission’s chapter on strategy states that “the basis for U.S. nuclear strategy is assured second strike,” but this standard cannot guide policy without an explanation of what they believe would constitute “unacceptable damage.”9 Adjustments to U.S. nuclear force structure could be part of a solution to the “two-peer problem,” but it is not a solution to suggest doubling the size of the U.S. arsenal without justifying the figure, as one commissioner did.10

The commission report also does not account for the major fiscal, logistical, and political constraints that would inhibit implementation of its recommendations. It acknowledges that its proposals “will drive extraordinary demands on the already-constrained” departments that manage the arsenal, but makes no attempt to offer recommendations that work within those constraints or realistic measures to loosen them.11 Instead, the report recommends a vast “overhaul and expansion of the capacity of the U.S. nuclear weapons defense industrial base” and the U.S. Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration nuclear security enterprise and offers proposals that range from constructive to semantic to quixotic.12 Even if all of these specific steps were implemented, it is difficult to see how they add up to the enormous increase in capacity that would be required to enact the commission’s expanded force structure.

In practice, the commission’s answer to the two-peer problem will be far more influential on the gathering debate on the future of nuclear strategy than it is on actual U.S. policy. Because of the standing of the commission’s members and the political appeal of their findings, the commission’s answer likely will be accepted in many quarters as the default position. As the debate becomes detached from realistic options, it increases the risk that the United States never develops a coherent approach to the strategic challenge it faces.

The report should prompt a national debate on a strategy for tripolar deterrence. At present, no group has presented a viable alternative to a major expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its supporting infrastructure. In one recent article, three experts propose shifting away from targeting opposing warheads to targeting civilian infrastructure, which could be accomplished with relatively fewer warheads.13 This proposal is far out of step with the U.S. commitment to adhere to the law of armed conflict and so is unlikely to influence policy. By giving voice to the strawman constructed by advocates of a buildup, calls for countervalue targeting also does not help to promote a realistic debate on how to respond to the tripolar challenge.14 It may well be the case that an effective strategy for tripolar deterrence abandons any requirement for preemptive counterforce and accepts that assured second strike can be accomplished with a relatively smaller force, but the strategy must conform to the law of armed conflict to be implemented.

An effective strategy on tripolar deterrence will fall within the broad region between an infeasible buildup and an infeasible shift to civilian targeting. Developing that strategy will require reexamining some of the fundamental assumptions of U.S. nuclear strategy, including the value of damage limitation.

A constructive debate would consider not only the numbers and types of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, but it would explore how a broad set of variables can interact to enhance deterrence, ranging from the intricate parameters that guide nuclear planning to instruments in other domains of conflict.

Compelling recommendations will account for the significant and foreseeable constraints on U.S. options and the expected responses of adversaries. Most importantly, as the United States reevaluates its strategic deterrence posture, it should remember that its objective is to maintain strategy stability and reject policies that would degrade it.



1. Jake Sullivan, Remarks at the Arms Control Association Annual Forum, Washington, June 2, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/06/02/remarks-by-national-security-advisor-jake-sullivan-for-the-arms-control-association-aca-annual-forum/.

2. Aaron Mehta, “STRATCOM Chief Warns of Chinese ‘Strategic Breakout,’” Breaking Defense, August 12, 2021, https://breakingdefense.sites.breakingmedia.com/2021/08/stratcom-chief-warns-of-chinese-strategic-breakout/.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2023: Annual Report to Congress,” October 19, 2023, https://media.defense.gov/2023/Oct/19/2003323409/-1/-1/1/2023-MILITARY-AND-SECURITY-DEVELOPMENTS-INVOLVING-THE-PEOPLES-REPUBLIC-OF-CHINA.PDF.

4. Stacie L. Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser, “No I in Team: Integrated Deterrence With Allies and Partners,” Center for a New American Security, December 2022, https://s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org
; Adam Mount and Pranay Vaddi, “An Integrated Approach to Deterrence Posture,” Federation of American Scientists, n.d., https://fas.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/An-Integrated-Approach-to-Deterrence-Posture.pdf.

5. Sharon K. Weiner, “Resetting the Requirements for Nuclear Deterrence,” Arms Control Today, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2022): 12-16; Adam Mount, “The Biden Nuclear Posture Review: Obstacles to Reducing Reliance on Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Today, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2022): 6-11.

6. Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, “America’s Strategic Posture,” October 2023, p. 63, https://armedservices.house.gov/sites/republicans.armedservices.house.gov/files/Strategic-Posture-Committee-Report-Final.pdf.

7. Ibid., p. 31. See Keith B. Payne and David J. Trachtenberg, “Deterrence in the Emerging Threat Environment: What Is Different and Why It Matters,” Journal of Policy & Strategy, Vol. 2, No. 4 (2022): 3-51.

8. For a more modest, specific, and attainable response with a broadly similar approach to the commission, see Center for Global Security Research Study Group, “China’s Emergence as a Second Nuclear Peer: Implications for U.S. Nuclear Deterrence Strategy,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2023.

9. Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, “America’s Strategic Posture,” p. 26.

10. “How Will America Deal With Three-Way Nuclear Deterrence?” The Economist, November 29, 2022.

11. Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, “America’s Strategic Posture,” p. 51.

12. Ibid., p. 60.

13. Charles L. Glaser, James M. Acton, and Steve Fetter, “The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Can Deter Both China and Russia,” Foreign Affairs, October 5, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/us-nuclear-arsenal-can-deter-both-china-and-russia.

14. Keith B. Payne et al., “The Rejection of Intentional Population Targeting for ‘Tripolar’ Deterrence,” National Institute for Public Policy Information Series, No. 563 (September 26, 2023), https://nipp.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/IS-563.pdf.

Adam Mount is a nonresident senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.


For the bipartisan commission charged with recommending how the United States should deal simultaneously with two nuclear-capable adversaries, the “answer to an arms race is an arms race.”

Saudi Push for Enrichment Raises Concerns

November 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

In talks with the United States, Saudi Arabia is pushing for the right to produce nuclear fuel, a move that poses a greater proliferation risk given Riyadh’s threats to develop nuclear weapons.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (C), inspecting an honor guard during the G20 summit in New Delhi in September, says that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, “we have to get one.” (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images)Saudi officials have said little publicly about its negotiations on a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, but the country has announced ambitious plans to expand its nascent nuclear program by purchasing two large nuclear reactors and enriching domestically mined uranium.

As a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Saudi Arabia can legally enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but its interest in uranium enrichment is complicated by its threat to build nuclear weapons to match Iranian capabilities.

In a September interview with Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, “we have to get one.” Saudi officials have made similar comments in the past. (See ACT, April 2018.)

The Biden administration’s willingness to consider a Saudi enrichment program is a departure from long-standing U.S. policy to limit the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing by pressing states to forgo developing these technologies in nuclear cooperation agreements with the United States, known as 123 agreements.

A nuclear cooperation agreement is necessary under the 1954 Atomic Energy Act before certain U.S. technologies and materials can be sold abroad. As part of the agreement, states must meet certain criteria designed to prevent proliferation.

The nuclear negotiations predate a larger effort to normalize Israeli-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia may be motivated to include the nuclear cooperation agreement in the broader rapprochement to gain Israel’s support for its nuclear ambitions.

Israel does not publicly admit to possessing nuclear weapons, but likely has an arsenal of about 80 warheads. The country is outspoken in opposition to other states in the region developing the capabilities to build nuclear weapons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigned against the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, citing the agreement’s provisions allowing Iran to enrich uranium as a key concern.

The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Netanyahu directed Israeli officials to work with the United States on an agreement that includes Saudi enrichment, but such a deal still would face criticism in Israel. Yair Lapid, a member of the Israeli Knesset and leader of the opposition to Netanyahu’s government, said in August that Saudi Arabia must not have “any level of enrichment.”

Although the effort to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations is on hold after Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel retaliated by striking and blockading the Gaza Strip, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to abandon its nuclear plans.

But even if an agreement is reached, it is unclear if it will garner sufficient support in the U.S. Congress. If the agreement meets nine nonproliferation criteria set out in the Atomic Energy Act, it will enter into effect unless both houses of Congress pass a resolution of disapproval within 90 days.

If the agreement does not meet the nonproliferation criteria, Congress must pass a resolution of approval for it to enter into effect.

The nine nonproliferation criteria include a guarantee that any nuclear materials and equipment are not used for weapons development or other military purposes and that the recipient state has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Given Saudi Arabia’s public threats to develop nuclear weapons, it may be challenging for the Biden administration to gain support for any agreement that allows uranium enrichment, particularly if the kingdom does not have an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement in place. Additional protocols to safeguards agreements were developed in the 1990s when it became clear from the cases of Iraq and North Korea that a comprehensive safeguard agreement alone was insufficient to prevent proliferation. An additional protocol gives the IAEA more access and information about a country’s nuclear activities.

Sixteen Democrats in the U.S. Senate sent a letter to Biden saying that the United States should “seriously consider” whether it is in its best interest to support a Saudi nuclear program. The Oct. 4 letter said that if the United States moves forward on a nuclear cooperation agreement, it should meet the “gold standard.”

The gold standard refers to a nuclear cooperation agreement that requires the receiving country to forgo enrichment and reprocessing and adhere to the additional protocol. The U.S. agreement with the United Arab Emirates meets the gold standard.

Congressional opposition to Saudi enrichment predates the current nuclear negotiations. During the Trump administration, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that the United States “should suspend all talks” on a nuclear cooperation agreement “until the Saudi government agrees to the ‘gold standard’ requirements.” His statement followed the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government in October 2018.

Rubio and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would require any nuclear agreement with Saudi Arabia to meet the gold standard and secure an affirmative vote of approval from Congress. (See ACT, December 2018.)

The legislation did not become law, but it demonstrates the bipartisan opposition that Biden likely will face if he attempts to move forward on an agreement that does not meet the gold standard.

Saudi statements suggest that the country will not accept an agreement that bans uranium enrichment, but it is unclear if it would accept the more intrusive additional protocol to its safeguards agreement.

Saudi Arabia only announced in September during the annual IAEA General Conference that it would negotiate a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the agency. For years, the IAEA had been urging Saudi Arabia to update its safeguards.

Until Saudi Arabia adopts its safeguards agreement, IAEA monitoring is based on an outdated safeguards model, called the small quantities protocol, designed for states with little or no nuclear materials. That protocol was designed in the 1970s, but after determining it was insufficient, the IAEA revised it in 2005 to give the agency more tools for conducting safeguards. Saudi Arabia never adopted the revised text.

Although Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it will adopt a comprehensive safeguards agreement is a necessary step toward introducing nuclear materials, the country’s unwillingness to update its safeguards promptly in response to agency requests raises concerns.

In September 2020, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Saudi Arabia’s small quantities protocol is simply “not adequate.”

Saudi Arabia also forged ahead with constructing a research reactor under the outdated safeguards arrangement, a move that makes it more difficult for the IAEA to verify the reactor design and develop a safeguards approach. Standard practice is to allow the agency to inspect a reactor as it is being built.

The Biden administration has other options to reduce the risk of Riyadh using a civil nuclear program for weapons purposes besides insisting on the gold standard or forging an agreement allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium.

It could attempt to bypass the question of Saudi enrichment by pursuing a black box approach, by which the United States would construct and operate a uranium-enrichment facility on Saudi soil. But it remains unclear how the United States would respond to any Saudi attempts to nationalize the facility or prevent the kingdom from acquiring knowledge about enrichment even if the facility was operated by U.S. personnel.

Furthermore, it may be challenging for the United States to implement such a proposal. The only U.S.-based and -operated enrichment facility, Centrus, just began operations in October. The only other commercial enrichment facility in the United States is operated by Urenco, a European-based enrichment consortium.

Another option would be to delay determining whether Saudi Arabia will be allowed to enrich uranium. The United States pursued a similar approach in its nuclear cooperation agreement with South Korea, when Seoul sought permission to reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

Delaying the decision would allow the United States and Saudi Arabia to study the feasibility and proliferation implications and consider alternative arrangements, such as U.S. support for a fuel fabrication facility in Saudi Arabia. This would allow Saudi Arabia to produce nuclear fuel with less proliferation risk because it would not include uranium-enrichment technology on Saudi soil.

A delay would also give Saudi Arabia time to determine if mining its uranium deposits is a viable option.

In January 2023, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said that the country intends to “utilize its national uranium resources” and pursue “the entire nuclear fuel cycle,” including “the production of yellowcake, low-enriched uranium and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for our national use and of course for export.” (See ACT, March 2023.)

But a joint publication by the IAEA and the Nuclear Energy Agency, a multilateral entity run out of the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development in Paris, in 2023 assessed that mining Saudi Arabia’s uranium deposits would be “severely uneconomic.”

Given Saudi Arabia’s threats to develop nuclear weapons, it may be challenging for the country to purchase uranium ore for enrichment.

The Biden administration’s willingness to consider a Saudi uranium enrichment program departs from long-standing U.S. policy to limit the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing.

UN Missile Sanctions on Iran Expire

November 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

UN restrictions on Iran’s missile program expired in October, but a group of states said they remain committed to countering Iranian missile activities.

Forty-eight states have declared their commitment to countering Iranian missile activities, including what some experts say is Iran’s sale of drones to Russia for use in the war against Ukraine. In this photo, domestically produced Iranian defense equipment and weapons is exhibited during a defense industry fair in Tehran in August.  (Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)Iran was prohibited from importing and exporting certain missiles, drones, and related technologies without prior UN Security Council approval under Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

In response to the expiration of the UN restrictions on Oct. 18, 48 states issued a statement calling Iran’s missile program “one of the greatest challenges to international nonproliferation efforts” and said Tehran’s transfers of missiles and related technologies “endangers international stability and escalates regional tension.”

The statement was coordinated through the Proliferation Security Initiative, a voluntary multilateral effort launched in 2003 to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The group of states said it is “imperative” for states to “counter Iran’s destabilizing ballistic missile-related activities” and committed to “take all necessary measures to prevent the supply, sale or transfer of ballistic missile-related items,” including interdicting shipments of those materials.

The UN restrictions likely slowed Iran’s exports of missiles and drones, but evidence suggests Iran continued to transfer systems without the required Security Council approval. According to the UN Secretariat, debris from missile systems used by the Houthis in Yemen is consistent with Iranian systems and contains components manufactured after Resolution 2231 entered into effect.

Furthermore, France, Germany, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States all shared evidence with the UN Secretariat that Iran transferred drones to Russia in violation of the resolution. (See ACT, January/February 2023.) Russia used the systems in its full-scale war against Ukraine. Although Iran admitted to transferring some drones prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tehran said the systems sold were not covered by Resolution 2231, which focused on nuclear-capable systems.

It is unclear if the expiry of the UN restrictions will lead to an expansion of Iran’s trade in missiles and related technologies. U.S. sanctions on Iran’s missile program remain in place, and on Oct. 18, the Biden administration sanctioned additional individuals and companies that support Iran’s missile program.

The European Council confirmed on Oct. 17 that the European Union would maintain all sanctions on Iran that would have been lifted on Oct. 18 under the JCPOA, including measures covering Iran’s missile program.

The UK also retained its sanctions on Iran and announced new measures. In an Oct. 18 statement, the UK Foreign Office described its decision to keep restrictions in place as “a proportionate and legitimate response to Iran’s nuclear escalation.” It also said that Iran’s missile and drone transfers “endanger international stability and escalate regional tension.”

The European decision to keep sanctions in place does not come as a surprise. France, Germany, and the UK said in September that the European sanctions would not be lifted. Immediately following that announcement, Iran revoked permission for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector to travel to Iran to conduct safeguards activities. (See ACT, October 2023.) Tehran does not appear to have taken any additional steps to advance its nuclear program or reduce IAEA access following the formal expiration of the sanctions on Oct. 18.

Russia condemned the EU and the United States for failing to comply with the JCPOA sanctions-lifting requirements. In an Oct. 17 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the United States and Europe of retaining the sanctions to “settle political scores” with Iran and “demonstrating disdain for international law.”

Russia can now purchase drones and missiles from Iran legally, but it is unclear if Tehran will escalate its support for Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Iran and Russia discussed the transfer of ballistic missiles in 2022, but U.S. and European warnings appear to have deterred Tehran from transferring those systems. (See ACT, November 2022.)

A significant escalation in military support for Russia could lead France or the UK to snap back the UN sanctions on Iran. Due to a special provision in Resolution 2231, a resolution to reimpose the sanctions on Iran cannot be vetoed. The option to snap back the sanctions does not expire until October 2025. The United States cannot exercise the snapback provision because it is no longer a party to the JCPOA.

If Iran ramps up its sales of missiles and drones, it also could complicate efforts to deescalate tensions with the United States. Iran and the United States took limited steps to ease tensions in September when Iran released five American hostages in exchange for the release of five individuals detained in the United States and access to $6 billion in frozen oil revenues. The money was transferred to banks in Qatar and can be used only to pay for humanitarian goods. (See ACT, October 2023.)

Critics of the swap in the U.S. Congress called for the Biden administration to prevent Iran from accessing those funds after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

Tehran provides military support to Hamas, but Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Ayatollah Khamenei denied that his country was involved in planning the attacks. In an Oct. 10 speech, he said that “we defend Palestine and its struggle” but the attacks “are the works of Palestinians themselves.”

Israeli and U.S. officials have said there is no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the Hamas attack. But the resulting regional tensions and Iran’s long-standing support for Hamas and Hezbollah, a militant group based in Lebanon, likely will make it more difficult for Tehran and Washington to resume talks over Iran’s nuclear program.

Forty-eight states, concerned about Iran’s export of missiles and drones to Russia and other countries, affirmed plans to work to limit the transfers.

U.S. Says North Korea Shipped Arms to Russia

November 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

The United States accused North Korea of shipping military equipment to Russia for use against Ukraine in violation of UN sanctions.

A worker stands before a boat in Najin, a port city in North Korea near the border with Russia. The United States has accused North Korea of shipping military equipment from the port to Russia for use in the Russian war against Ukraine.  (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)The U.S. mission to the United Nations said on Oct. 13 that North Korea shipped more than 1,000 containers of arms and munitions to Russia “in recent weeks.” The transfers “directly violate” UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting North Korea from exporting arms and munitions, the statement said.

The same day, the White House released images of 300 shipping containers in Najin, a port city in North Korea near the border with Russia. It said the containers arrived in Russia via ship on Sept. 12, the day before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia’s far eastern region. The containers were then shipped across Russia to a city near the Ukrainian border.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Oct. 13 that the arms will help “further Russia’s illegitimate war” and that the growing military partnership between Russia and North Korea “undermines regional stability and the global nonproliferation regime.”

The announcement is the first time that the United States accused North Korea of providing large-scale assistance to Russia, despite Kim’s support for the invasion of Ukraine. Prior to Kim’s meeting with Putin in September, U.S. officials said there was no evidence of active North Korean military assistance to Russia, but they warned that Pyongyang would pay a price if it transferred arms to Moscow. (See ACT, October 2023.)

Matt Miller, State Department spokesperson, said on Oct. 18 that the United States will take “whatever steps we can to hold” North Korea to account, but did not provide details.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied that Russia received arms from North Korea. He told reporters on Oct. 17 that the United States has never provided any evidence to support the allegations. Moscow will continue building ties with Pyongyang, he said.

In a further demonstration of growing bilateral ties, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Pyongyang, where, during an Oct. 18 reception, he expressed “solidarity” with Pyongyang and gave thanks for its “principled support” of the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Kirby said the United States is “monitoring closely” whatever assistance that Russia may provide to North Korea in return for the military assistance. Kim expressed interest in Russia’s space program during his Russia trip. He has announced ambitious plans for North Korea’s space program, but recent attempts to put a satellite into orbit have failed. (See ACT, September 2023.)

Kirby said that the United States assesses that North Korea also may be interested in fighter aircraft, equipment for producing ballistic missiles, and surface-to-air missiles.

The reports of North Korean assistance to Russia come amid U.S. joint military drills in the region that Pyongyang long has described as provocative. In early October, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan participated in a trilateral exercise with South Korea and Japan, which the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) decried as the United States “advertising” that it could “fight a war” on the Korean peninsula and “goes to prove…the U.S. scheme for a nuclear attack” on North Korea.

In an Oct. 13 statement, KCNA said the U.S. decision to introduce “various nuclear strategic assets into the Korean peninsula [when the] danger of outbreak of a nuclear war is rampant” is an “undisguised military provocation.”

South Korea’s new defense minister, Shin Won-shik, said that recent efforts to integrate South Korea’s conventional forces with U.S. nuclear deterrence forces remain the top priority for countering North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Shin threatened swift retaliation if North Korea “carries out military provocations.” He said it is a “fantasy” to believe that South Korean goodwill can “transform North Korea” and called for immediate, strong punishment in response to any North Korean military provocations. Seoul must punish Pyongyang “until the end” to break the “enemy’s will and capacity” to threaten South Korea, he said.

South Korean officials said in October that North Korea halted its five-megawatt electric nuclear reactor at the Yongbyon complex, likely to extract the spent fuel.

North Korea separates plutonium from the spent reactor fuel to use in nuclear weapons.

On Sept. 29, International Atomic Energy Agency member states passed a resolution at this year’s general conference urging North Korea to “halt all such activities and any efforts” to expand nuclear activities “aimed at the production of fissile material.” The resolution expressed support for diplomatic engagement and dialogue with Pyongyang to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

It is the first time that Washington had accused Pyongyang of such large-scale assistance to Moscow.

Russia ‘Deratifies’ Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

November 2023
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

President Vladimir Putin signed a law revoking Russia’s ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has helped keep a lid on nuclear testing for 27 years.

Cable is laid on Wake Island as part of a complex hydroacoustic system that allows the Preparatory Commission for Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to monitor potential nuclear tests by means of sound waves in the water. (Photo courtesy of CTBTO Public Information)

The law, signed on Nov. 2, reflects worsening tensions with the United States over Russia’s war in Ukraine and a further crumbling of the international arms control architecture. Putin’s move was expected after the Russian Duma’s lower house passed the bill in a 415-0 vote on Oct. 17; the upper house, in a 156-0 vote on Oct. 25.

Russia remains one of the 187 signatories to the treaty and, according to Russian officials, will continue to cooperate with the Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) and its International Monitoring System, which was established to verify compliance with the treaty. But the Russian decision to deratify its membership is clearly a setback to long-running efforts to achieve entry into force of the treaty, which still requires ratification by China, the United States, and six other treaty-specified states for that to happen.

Russia’s deratification move has raised inevitable questions about whether it actually will resume nuclear testing. Asked about this on Oct. 5 at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Putin replied, “I’m not ready to say now whether we really need or don’t need to conduct tests.”

Putin reiterated a longtime grievance with the United States, which signed the treaty in 1996 but did not ratify it, while Russia ratified the CTBT in 2000. "As a matter of principle, we can offer a tit-for-tat response in our relations with the United States," he stated.

In response, a State Department spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal the following day that the Russian move “needlessly endangers the global norm against nuclear explosive testing" and that Washington will continue to adhere to its nuclear test moratorium, which it has observed since 1992.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the Duma speaker, told the lower chamber on Oct. 17 that, “[o]ur vote will be a response to the United States for its boorish attribute towards its responsibilities to maintain global security.”

Ahead of the Duma vote, senior Russian Foreign Ministry officials asserted that Russia would continue to observe a nuclear test moratorium. “Withdrawing ratification by no means undermines our constructive approach to the CTBT and does not mean that our country intends to resume nuclear tests,” Vladimir Yermakov, head of the Foreign Ministry’s nonproliferation and arms control department, was quoted by Tass as saying on Oct. 16.

He reaffirmed that Russia’s position on the resumption of nuclear explosive testing was set out in February when Putin said that Russia would only conduct a test if the United States did so first.

Speaking to the annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi in October, Russian President Vadimir Putin is noncommittal about whether his country might resume nuclear testing. (Getty Images)But on Oct. 10, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the United States of carrying out preparations at its nuclear test site in Nevada, according to Reuters.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson rejected the allegation, calling it “a disturbing effort by Moscow to heighten nuclear risks and raise tensions in the context of its illegal war in Ukraine.” They reiterated that Washington has no plans to abandon a 1992 moratorium on nuclear test explosions.

Satellite imagery shows that China, Russia, and the United States are all making improvements to military and experimental facilities at their former nuclear test sites. (See ACT, October 2023.) Independent analysts say the deratification is not necessarily an indication that Russia plans to resume nuclear explosive testing for development of its nuclear weapons programs.

Although the Duma vote is a concern, “neither the announcement nor actual withdrawal from the CTBT would change the fundamental calculus of nuclear threat and risk because they would not modify Russia’s incentives, nuclear doctrine or force posture,” according to a commentary published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on Oct. 17. But others were not so sanguine. On Oct. 16, the Canadian delegation to a UN meeting in New York said in a statement that Russia’s deratification “undermines the treaty’s objective” and this action “stands in contrast with the recent Article XIV conference,” where states reaffirmed their commitment to the treaty.

In a statement issued on Oct. 19, CTBTO Executive Secretary Robert Floyd called the Duma’s decision “very disappointing and deeply regrettable” and said that “this decision goes against renewed global determination to see the CTBT enter into force.”

Floyd added that Russia “has stated that revoking its ratification does not mean it is withdrawing from the CTBT and that it remains committed to the treaty, including the operation of all CTBTO monitoring stations on its territory and the sharing of that data with all states.” Russia hosts 30 of the 300-plus seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound, and radionuclide monitoring stations that compose the treaty’s global verification network.

In the context of the CTBT, Russia’s move to withdraw its ratification has no precedent.

Some Russian officials say the country will adhere to its nuclear testing moratorium but President Vladimir Putin is noncommittal.

Ukraine Uses New U.S. Missile Against Russia

November 2023
By Carol Giacomo

U.S. missiles known as ATACMS have arrived in Ukraine and been used with initial success on the battlefield against Russian forces, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukraine, in a tough war against Russian invading forces, has received a version of the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) that it has been pushing the United States to provide. The system is shown during South Korean-U.S. training exercises in 2022. (Photo by South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)“Our agreements with President [Joe] Biden are being implemented, and very accurately. ATACMS have proven themselves,” he said in a video shared on social media on Oct. 17.

Zelenskyy made the comments after Ukrainian strikes on the Berdyansk and Luhansk airfields in Russian-occupied territory.

Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, confirmed that the ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System) missiles were instrumental in the attacks when he posted footage of the launch on his Telegram channel.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that the strikes destroyed nine helicopters, an air-defense launcher, vehicles, and ammunition depots and damaged airstrips.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the ATACMS decision “another mistake by the United States.”

“War is war,” he said on Oct. 18, “and, of course, I have said that [ATACMS] pose a threat…. But what counts most is that they are completely unable to drastically change the situation along the line of contact. It’s impossible.”

For more than a year, Ukrainian officials had pushed the Biden administration to supply long-range ATACMS missiles that can travel nearly 200 miles. They argued that the weapons could alter the course of war, provoked by Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, by holding at risk high-value targets behind the front lines.

Some U.S. officials were concerned that providing the missiles would cause Putin to escalate the conflict.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff Gen. Mark Milley resisted sending the missiles, arguing that the United States had a limited inventory and needed to ensure they had enough weapons to meet potential emergencies elsewhere in the world, according to Politico on Oct. 17.

The stalemate was resolved when Biden agreed to quietly send Ukraine an older, medium-range ATACMS known as Anti-Personnel/Anti-Materiel missile, Politico reported. The missiles are designed for use with cluster munitions, which carry warheads with hundreds of bomblets, that Biden started sending Ukraine in July.

Cluster munitions are banned under an international treaty to which Russia, Ukraine, and the United States are not members. Although the weapons can be devastating against an adversary, they often lay dormant long after the fighting and cause serious injury to civilians who inadvertently come upon them.

The Biden compromise with Ukraine may not satisfy Congress. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said on Oct. 17 that he was not satisfied by the announced supply of the weapons system. Without the longer-range variant of the weapons, McCaul said that “Congress won’t let up pressure on the Biden administration.”

After long resisting, the United States delivered ATACMS, which Ukraine’s president said were used successfully on the battlefield.


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