“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
Arms Control Today

Congressman Aims to Bolster U.S. Hypersonics Testing

July/August 2023
By Shannon Bugos

The Pentagon’s efforts to develop and deploy new hypersonic weapons to rival those of China and Russia may receive a funding boost from Congress in order to overcome its insufficient testing infrastructure.

Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. (R), talks with Admiral John C. Aquilino, commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, during the House Armed Services Committee hearing in April that included discussion of hypersonic weapons.  (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, vowed to make hypersonic capabilities a top priority in the U.S. national defense budget process for fiscal year 2024,
which is now underway.

Lamborn said on May 13 that he aims to speed up the “way too slow” hypersonic weapons systems development programs, primarily by increasing funding for “different testing capabilities and facilities.”

Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, acknowledged during an April hearing before the full committee that the Pentagon’s advancements in hypersonic weapons programs must
“go faster.”

“We are in a race with peer competitors that are determined to beat us in hypersonics,” Mark Lewis, a former Pentagon official with expertise in hypersonic weapons systems, stated on June 5. Lewis now works at Purdue University’s Applied Research Institute, which opened a new hypersonic technologies research and testing facility on June 6.

Earlier this year, the Defense Department identified significant inadequacies with ground-test capabilities and missile test ranges for hypersonic weapons, such as insufficient flight-simulation abilities and the need for new or upgraded instrumentation. (See ACT, March 2023.) In March, the Air Force announced that it was canceling the purchase of its Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a hypersonic boost-glide system, due to a lackluster testing record. (See ACT, May 2023.)

But in April, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall suggested that all might not be over for the ARRW system, telling Congress that “we haven’t stopped on ARRW.” Kendall, a known skeptic of the ARRW program, said that the service will wait to see how the missile system finishes its testing program before making a judgment on its future.

Lamborn also emphasized the need for the United States to focus more on building up systems to defend against hypersonic weapons. This type of defense system received increased attention due to Ukraine’s interception on May 4 of a Russian Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile over Kyiv with a U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missile defense system.

After much media speculation, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder confirmed on May 9 that Ukraine used the Patriot system to down a Russian missile.

The United States, Germany, and the Netherlands all have supplied Ukraine with Patriot missile defense systems.

In late June, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees marked up their respective versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2024. The two chambers still need to merge their drafts into one piece of legislation and approve the final version.

Meanwhile, Iran claimed on June 6 that it has created a new hypersonic medium-range ballistic missile weapons system, named Conqueror, with speeds as high as Mach 15. Experts doubted Iran’s claim. John Krzyzaniak of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, tweeted, “[D]on’t be dazzled by ‘hypersonic’ claims,” noting that the system resembled a ballistic missile with maneuverable reentry vehicle capability.


The Republican chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee agrees with the Pentagon that the development of hypersonic weapons systems needs to be accelerated. 

PSI Celebrates 20 Years

July/August 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

States met in South Korea to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a multilateral initiative aimed at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and discuss actions to address new proliferation threats.

A U.S. Coast Guard team clears the main deck of USNS Henry J. Kaiser during a live training exercise at sea in the Indo-Pacific region in 2014. The exercise is designed to build regional capacity to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction under the Proliferation Security Initiative.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st class Amanda Dunford)Founded in 2003, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) focuses on disrupting the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and related materials through information sharing and interdictions. More than 100 states have endorsed the PSI Statement of Interdiction Principles, which includes commitments such as strengthening national legal authorities
to allow for interdictions, interdicting illicit shipments of WMD-related materials, and sharing information about such shipments with other countries. Seventy countries participated in the May 31-June 1 meeting on Jeju Island.

South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Dohoon, who opened the PSI meeting, noted the significant contributions that the initiative has made to countering proliferation over the past two decades. He called attention to North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programs and said its actions demonstrate why states must commit to maintaining the PSI as an effective tool.

One of the incidents that spurred the United States to work with other countries to establish the PSI involved an illicit North Korean shipment of Scud missiles to Yemen in 2002.

Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that the PSI’s challenges are twofold. She noted that “long-standing trends” in proliferation “have worsened over time” and that new challenges are emerging. The PSI “must build upon its existing lines of effort while adapting to a rapidly changing strategic and technological environment,” she said in remarks on May 30. Jenkins called for PSI states “to undertake dedicated efforts” to address the threats posed by new technologies.

The PSI holds workshops and training activities, including regular exercises in the Mediterranean Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region. This year’s annual Asia-Pacific exercise, Eastern Endeavor 23, was held alongside the high-level political meeting and included a multinational ship-boarding demonstration under “cooperative and non-cooperative situations” to build interdiction capacities, according to a description released on June 1 by South Korea.

Ahead of the exercise, the South Korean Defense Ministry described the activity as an opportunity to work with other countries to deter North Korean threats and demonstrate advanced capabilities to counter proliferation.

Jenkins said the Asia-Pacific exercise rotation has proven to be “hugely successful in developing regional partnerships” and urged the PSI to look to “replicate that effort in other regions.”

She also said the United States will expand PSI-related outreach efforts in 2024, including to countries in Africa, and encourage new states to endorse the initiative’s statement of principles. Africa, she said, is “underrepresented” in the PSI.

At the end of the meeting, participating countries adopted a joint statement committing to strengthen the PSI’s training activities and to address new proliferation challenges, such as cryptocurrency financing for WMD efforts and intangible technology transfers.

More than 100 states have endorsed the Proliferation Security Initiative principles to disrupt trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.   

States Prepare for NPT Meetings

July/August 2023
By Jupiter Kaishu Huang

During a moment of heightened nuclear danger, states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) are gearing up for the first of three preparatory committee meetings ahead of the 2026 NPT Review Conference.

Preparatory committees engage in procedural work; “consider principles, objectives, and ways” to promote the full implementation of the NPT; and forward recommendations to the review conference.

This year’s meetings will be held July 31-Aug. 11 in Vienna. Jarmo Viinanen, the Finnish ambassador for arms control, has been appointed the preparatory committee’s chair-designate.

The last NPT review conference, in 2022, marked the second consecutive meeting to fail at reaching an outcome document. (See ACT, September 2022; June 2015.) Russia broke the consensus in the final hours of the conference by demanding changes to several paragraphs of negotiated language. Among Russia’s objections was a statement stressing that control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant should return to Ukraine.

The recent destruction of the Kakhovka Dam has further increased anxiety over a nuclear accident in Ukraine. The dam’s collapse has led to a severe drop in the water levels of the Kakhovka reservoir, which supplies water to the Zaporizhzhia plant’s cooling pond. Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, stated on June 8 that there was no immediate danger but “the general nuclear safety and security situation remains very precarious.”

Despite the lack of an agreed outcome, the 2022 review conference did establish a working group on strengthening the review process. (See ACT, October 2022.) It will convene on July 24-28 in Vienna, immediately preceding the preparatory committee.

States-parties at the working group will discuss adjustments to the review cycle, such as an increase in interactivity in debate, greater agenda flexibility, a change in the length of committee meetings, and a shift to a more regional approach.

“The failure of several review conferences…to reach a consensus has been primarily the result of major differences among the states-parties rather than the fault of the structure and operation of the review process,” Gaukhar Mukhatzhar and Thomas Markram, senior experts at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-proliferation, wrote in May 2023. “However, states-parties have also acknowledged that the preparatory cycle could be made more effective.”

The first of three meetings to prepare for the 2026 NPT review conference will be held July 31-Aug. 11 in Vienna.  

Countering Nuclear Extremism With Prudent Restraint

June 2023
By Daryl G. Kimball

The decades-long effort to halt and reverse an arms race involving the world’s deadliest weapons may soon number among the casualties of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of independent, non-nuclear Ukraine and his increasingly reckless nuclear threats.

Russian intercontinental ballistic missile rolls along Red Square during a military parade on June 24, 2020 in Moscow. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)Over the apparent objections of his own foreign ministry and defense advisers, Putin announced in February that Russia will “suspend” implementation of the last remaining bilateral treaty capping U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The Russian Foreign Ministry blamed the United States for undermining talks to resolve differences over New START with its “hostile policy towards Russia.”

Russia will no longer share detailed data on its nuclear stockpile or allow the resumption of on-site inspections, but the Kremlin says it will comply with the central limits of New START, which is set to expire in less than three years. If the two sides fail to negotiate new arrangements to supersede or succeed the treaty, there will be no limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.

Without New START, which restricts each side to no more than 1,550 strategic warheads deployed on 700 delivery vehicles, Moscow and Washington could quickly double the size of their nuclear arsenals by uploading additional warheads on ballistic missiles.

U.S. President Joe Biden has made it clear consistently that his administration stands “ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START when it expires in 2026. But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith.”

The United States, its allies, and many other states have strongly condemned Putin’s suspension of New START and called on Russia to change course. At its summit in May, the Group of Seven industrialized countries declared that “[t]he overall decline in global nuclear arsenals achieved since the end of the Cold War must continue” and called on Russia to engage in substantive discussions in line with its nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) disarmament obligations.

As with Russia, the United States has its own contingent of nuclear weapons extremists. In mid-May, a loud group in Congress, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), introduced legislation that calls for the United States to withdraw from New START, increase the size of its already massive nuclear arsenal, and would only allow a future treaty with Russia if it restricts all types of nuclear warheads and if China is included.

Such action to stop implementation of New START or to withdraw from the treaty entirely would neither advance U.S. interests nor increase U.S. negotiating leverage vis-à-vis Russia. Rather, it would lend credence to Putin’s cynical disinformation campaign about who carries blame for the breakdown of nuclear arms control, further escalate already high tensions with a dangerous Russia, undoubtedly encourage China to ramp up its efforts to expand and diversify its nuclear arsenal; and undermine the security of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. It might even trigger the unraveling of the NPT itself.

Cotton is among those who seem to believe that, in order to deter a Russian or Chinese nuclear attack, the United States must grow its nuclear arsenal to a size greater than the combined Russian and Chinese arsenals. But he is wrong.

First of all, the size and diversity of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal still exceeds in number and in destructive capability what is necessary to hold a sufficient number of adversary military assets at risk so as to deter an enemy nuclear attack. Fielding even more nuclear weapons will not produce a more stable balance of nuclear terror.

In addition, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted in December, “[N]uclear deterrence isn’t just a numbers game. In fact, that sort of thinking can spur a dangerous arms race.” After all, as history shows, arms races are very costly and very dangerous and do not produce any winners.

Rather than take dangerous actions that accelerate dangerous nuclear competition, the United States must exercise prudent nuclear restraint. Most importantly, the United States could seek an executive agreement or simply a reciprocal unilateral arrangement verified with national technical means of intelligence that commits Russia and the United States to respecting New START’s central limits until a more permanent arms control arrangement is concluded.

At the same time, world leaders should urge China, France, and the United Kingdom to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals as long as Russia and the United States meet their most fundamental disarmament responsibility, which is to engage in good faith negotiations to halt and reverse the nuclear arms race.

Preventing nuclear arms racing, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear war must be a global endeavor, but there is no substitute for commonsense U.S. leadership to reduce the nuclear danger.

The decades-long effort to halt and reverse an arms race involving the world’s deadliest weapons may soon number among the casualties of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of independent, non-nuclear Ukraine and his increasingly reckless nuclear threats.

The Unknowns About China’s Nuclear Modernization Program

June 2023
By Fiona S. Cunningham

Policymakers and scholars outside of China do not know why Beijing is rapidly modernizing its nuclear arsenal.

Members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Xi Jinping (left), and the Central Military Commission must agree to put China’s nuclear weapons on alert or launch them. The members of China’s new Politburo Standing Committee were unveiled during the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2022. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)This uncertainty makes it more difficult for the United States and allied governments in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe to make informed choices about deterring China from the use of conventional or nuclear force and avoiding policies that exacerbate nuclear dangers. Although some changes to China’s nuclear capabilities and nuclear operations are observable, they do not provide clear evidence about what kind of nuclear arsenal China ultimately seeks and for what purpose. There is a broad range of goals that China might pursue. Regardless of its ambitions, it will take time for China to achieve these goals because of the modest arsenal that was the starting point for the current modernization effort.

Open-source analysis offers some clues about the drivers of China’s actions, but more research is needed to discover whether there is a coherent motivation underlying its nuclear modernization and, if so, what it is.

Analyzing just the capabilities that China is developing raises as many questions as it answers, for example. China is building capabilities that improve its ability to retaliate following a nuclear attack and its ability to threaten nuclear first use for coercive leverage in a conventional conflict. It can now do things with nuclear forces that it could not do in the past.

This change undermines the previous confidence of policymakers and analysts outside of China that Chinese leaders likely would use nuclear weapons only in desperation. It also raises other questions. Why did China wait until now to build a much more robust retaliatory capability? Why is it investing in silo basing after two decades of seeking a more mobile nuclear force to increase the survivability of its arsenal? Is it developing capabilities that could enable a quicker shift to a first-use posture in the future as a hedge or for other reasons?

There are a number of possible factors driving China’s nuclear modernization. New research indicates that developments in U.S. capabilities are responsible at least partly for the changes, but China’s reaction to such developments is more dramatic than in the past, which suggests that other factors likely are at play. China’s pursuit of a stronger nuclear shield, whether to enable conventional military operations or the non-nuclear escalation of a conflict, is one possibility. Another possibility is a change in China’s nuclear posture to embrace the first use of nuclear weapons, although so far there is not much evidence of this. A final possibility, for which there is limited evidence, is that changes in thinking among Chinese leaders and among bureaucratic actors who influence China’s nuclear policymaking are shaping modernization decisions.

A Thin Margin for Error

Until approximately 2019, three key characteristics defined China’s post-Cold War nuclear posture: a retaliatory doctrine, a small arsenal, and strict civilian control of nuclear weapons use. Although China’s no-first-use policy for its nuclear weapons generated a healthy degree of skepticism, it informed the goals that China’s nuclear forces were intended to achieve: countering an adversary’s efforts to compel or “blackmail” China with nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict and assuring retaliation if China suffers a nuclear attack.1 Chinese officials continue to reaffirm this no-first-use policy today.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) always could have improvised a nuclear first-strike campaign if called on by political leaders to do so. Some Chinese experts wrote about ambiguities in China’s no-first-use policy and proposed exceptions to it, especially in the early 2000s.2 Yet, there is no evidence that Chinese leaders ever officially accepted these proposals or adopted a first-use policy to gain a coercive or military advantage as a goal for its nuclear forces. Instead, they relied on threats to escalate a conflict using information-age weapons with strategic effects—precision conventional missiles, counterspace weapons, and cyberattacks—to gain coercive leverage as substitutes for threatening nuclear first use.3

China has maintained an arsenal of roughly 200 to 300 nuclear warheads and delivery systems throughout most of the last three decades. The rapid growth of its conventional missile force since the late 1990s suggests that China could have built a much larger nuclear force if it had wanted. Even in 2020, as the U.S. government began to project rapid growth in China’s nuclear arsenal, The Science of Military Strategy, published by the PLA National Defense University in 2020, reaffirmed the PLA’s force-building principle of a “lean and effective” arsenal.4 The meaning of “lean and effective,” however, was never meant to be a fixed number, but rather one that would ensure China’s retaliatory capability despite the improving counterforce capabilities fielded by China’s nuclear adversaries.

China always has concentrated control over nuclear operations in the hands of top civilian leaders to avoid the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, even at the expense of the survivability of its arsenal.5 The Politburo Standing Committee and the Central Military Commission must both agree to put nuclear weapons on alert or launch them. China’s land-based nuclear forces were kept at a low level of peacetime readiness. Warheads were stored at a central depot while missiles remained in garrisons dispersed throughout the country’s vast territory, unless its leaders issued an order for warheads to be dispatched from the central warhead depot to missile units.6

A Changing Nuclear Force

Since around 2019, China has increased the size, accuracy, readiness, and diversity of its nuclear arsenal. The number of Chinese nuclear warheads and delivery systems is increasing. In 2022, the Pentagon report on Chinese military power estimated that its number of nuclear warheads exceeded 400,7 while an unofficial estimate put the current Chinese stockpile at 410.8 The Pentagon forecasts that China’s operational warhead stockpile will grow to 1,000 by 2030 and to 1,500 by 2035 “if China continues the pace of its nuclear modernization,” although it is far from certain that the future pace of China’s arsenal growth will be constant.

China also has improved the accuracy of its land-based nuclear delivery systems. Media reports indicate that China’s newest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the solid-fueled Dongfeng (DF)-41, has a circular error probability of 100 meters.9 Its most advanced theater-range delivery system, the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, is more accurate than the older DF-21 missile.10 No information is publicly available about the accuracy of air- or submarine-launched nuclear delivery systems or accuracy improvements to older land-based missiles.

China has increased the readiness of its land-based missile force and amended its long-standing practice of separating warheads and delivery systems in peacetime. In 2021, the Pentagon report on Chinese military power stated that although China “almost certainly keeps the majority of its nuclear force on a peacetime status—with separated launchers, missiles, and warheads—nuclear and conventional…PLARF [People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force] brigades conduct ‘combat readiness duty’ and ‘high alert duty,’ which apparently include assigning a missile battalion to be ready to launch, and rotating to standby positions as much as a monthly basis for unspecified periods of time.”11 In new analysis, David Logan and Phillip Saunders found some evidence that the PLARF’s nuclear-warhead handling regiments, which used to be subordinated to missile bases, are now under the authority of the central warhead depot. They suggest that this change might reflect an intent to shore up centralized control arrangements while adopting more distributed warhead handling practices.12

The higher readiness level could enable a future shift to a launch-on-warning alert status for some or all of China’s nuclear forces. The 2022 Pentagon report indicated that China is implementing such a change, citing rapid improvements in its early-warning system and PLA writings and Rocket Force exercises.13 Because constructing an early-warning system has a long lead time, however, the available evidence is also consistent with China putting in place the pieces to enable a shift to a launch-on-warning alert status in the future.

Indeed, China’s current early-warning system still has important weaknesses that likely would result in relatively short warning times of a U.S. missile launch by the time China has confirmed that it was the target of the strike.14 Although various editions of The Science of Military Strategy included language suggesting China’s land-based missile force would move to a launch-on-warning posture,15 Chinese experts have been debating the costs and benefits of moving to a launch-on-warning alert status for almost a decade. One recent study by Henrik Hiim, Taylor Fravel, and Magnus Langset Trøan analyzing Chinese sources found evidence of discussion but no clear decision to adopt a launch-on-warning alert status.16 If leaders in Beijing have already decided to adopt this change, available evidence does not clarify how they are amending nuclear launch procedures and authorities to take account of the shortened decision time required for timely launch.

China’s nuclear modernization has added to the diversity of its nuclear systems, which gives its leaders better options for theater nuclear strikes, redundancy in delivery systems, and some experimental systems whose applications remain unclear. China’s nascent nuclear triad has increased its options for nuclear strikes in the East Asian theater. The air leg currently depends on the H-6N bomber, which has a range of approximately 3,500 kilometers and can be refueled. It lacks stealth capabilities to overcome sophisticated air defenses, but is expected to be equipped with a medium-range air-launched ballistic missile. Similarly, the Type-094 submarine would be vulnerable to U.S. anti-submarine warfare forces if it transited through the first island chain to bring the continental United States into range of its JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). At least some of those submarines now carry the longer-range JL-3 SLBM, but they would still have to exit the first island chain to bring the eastern coast of the United States into range.17

The air and sea legs of China’s nuclear forces likely will become more significant for intercontinental-range nuclear operations when next-generation platforms that have greater range and stealth capabilities come online. China also has improved the land-based leg of its theater-range nuclear delivery systems. Its newer, dual-use DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile can deliver anti-ship, conventional and nuclear warheadsand reportedly is more mobile and survivable than the older DF-21A medium-range ballistic missile.18 In a departure from operational practices for the DF-21, which had different brigades operating conventional, conventional anti-ship, and nuclear variants of the missile, the same DF-26 brigades appear to train for conventional and nuclear missions.19

Satellite imagery from 2021 showed one of China’s new missile silos covered by an inflatable dome while under construction. China’s new missile silos number over 300, which suggests that most of China's future nuclear arsenal growth will be in its intercontinental-range forces. (Image by Maxar Technologies; analysis by Federation of American Scientists)China’s new missile silos increase the diversity of its land-based intercontinental-range nuclear delivery systems. After the PLARF spent nearly three decades moving away from silo-based nuclear forces, it began constructing three large silo fields in 2020 and 2021 consisting of roughly 100 silos each. Those silos could be filled with China’s most advanced ICBM, the DF-41, which is solid fueled and can carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles, or the older DF-31 series ICBM, which is also solid fueled but delivers a single warhead.

China also has been constructing silos near existing brigades that operate its oldest ICBM, the silo-based, liquid-fueled DF-5. Various editions of The Science of Military Strategy have indicated that fixed and mobile missile units each have their advantages and disadvantages. Silos are able to keep their status secret and conceal pre-launch preparations, but are vulnerable once discovered by an adversary.20 The rapid expansion of a silo-based ICBM force could reflect an intent to adopt a launch-on-warning alert status, as the Pentagon report speculated. It also could reflect Chinese concerns about the disadvantages of land-based mobile nuclear forces, whether their survivability, mobility, communications, or cost.

China is experimenting with capabilities that could further increase the future diversity of its nuclear forces. It has tested experimental delivery systems, such as an orbital bombardment system paired with a hypersonic glide vehicle. U.S. officials have hinted that China is developing “novel nuclear-powered capabilities.”21 The Pentagon also reported that China might be developing low-yield nuclear warheads for its nuclear delivery systems, citing Chinese defense industry publications expressing an interest in low-yield options and activity at China’s nuclear laboratories and testing sites.22 Whether and how China might deploy these systems remain unclear.

Inferring Motivations From Capabilities

The increasing size, accuracy, readiness, and diversity of China’s arsenal bolsters the credibility of the country’s ability to threaten retaliation for a nuclear strike and enables China to make more credible threats to use nuclear weapons first. As such, there are clear limits to inferring China’s nuclear goals and motivations from its capabilities.

Less than a decade ago, China had a thin margin for error in ensuring the survivability of its retaliatory force, which depended heavily on the alert status of its small number of mobile ICBMs. One study concluded that, in 2017, 10 to 27 Chinese warheads would survive a U.S. disarming strike, assuming a low alert status.23 Another study by two U.S. scholars found that China could likely deliver 10 to 20 warheads to the continental United States, assuming China alerted its mobile land-based ICBMs early in a crisis.24 A Chinese scholar determined that, in 2010, “the probability of successful Chinese nuclear retaliation against the continental United States was 38 percent for day-to-day alert status, and 90 percent for full alert status.”25

Today, China’s nuclear retaliatory capability is more robust. A larger arsenal is better able to absorb a disarming strike and penetrate U.S. missile defenses. The fastest growth in China’s arsenal between 2015 and 2020 occurred in its dual-use DF-26 force, when 160 to 250 launchers were added.26 The country’s ICBM force also has grown substantially from approximately 60 missiles in 2015 to 140 missiles by unofficial estimates and 300 according to the Pentagon in late 2022.27

China’s new silo fields suggest that the majority of future growth will be in its ICBM force. The higher readiness of some Chinese units in peacetime deprives the United States of the opportunity to neutralize China’s retaliatory capability by disrupting the process of mating warheads and delivery systems in a crisis or conflict. The greater diversity of China’s nuclear force adds further redundancy that hedges against the increased vulnerability of its land-based missile forces to U.S. counterforce capabilities in the future. The DF-26 missile also equips China with a larger number of more accurate and survivable options for limited retaliation.

In 2015, China could have threatened the first use of nuclear weapons, but it lacked a sufficient number of accurate capabilities for limited strikes to make those threats credible. A limited Chinese first strike to gain coercive leverage in a conventional conflict would have been suicidal unless Chinese leaders were very confident the United States would back down rather than retaliate. China’s nuclear modernization enables its leaders to make more credible threats of nuclear first use, but still it is not optimized for coercion in conventional conflicts. One key missing capability is a large or diverse set of theater or tactical nuclear capabilities for limited nuclear strikes. Nevertheless, as China’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow, the acute trade-off it previously faced between engaging in a limited nuclear exchange and deterring a disarming U.S. strike will ease. The higher peacetime readiness of some Chinese land-based nuclear missile units would give the United States less warning of a Chinese first strike and fewer opportunities to preempt it. The accuracy of the DF-26 missile creates new possibilities for China to carry out limited nuclear strikes by reducing the likelihood that these limited, theater-range nuclear strikes would cause collateral damage that risks provoking more devastating retaliation than intended.

Because China’s capabilities provide only limited insights into Chinese motivations for building up its nuclear forces, any search for additional insights should consider the drivers of China’s nuclear posture in the past and the drivers of other countries’ nuclear force developments. There are a number of possible motivations for China’s nuclear modernization, some suggesting continuity in the country’s nuclear strategy goals and others suggesting change in those goals or in the nuclear posture decision-making processes in China.

Assuring Robust Retaliation

To ensure that China could retaliate for nuclear attacks and deter nuclear coercion in a crisis or conventional war, Chinese nuclear strategists have long recognized that its arsenal needs to evolve in tandem with the first-strike threat that it faces. Since 2015, improvements in U.S. counterforce capabilities, such as missile defenses, sensing capabilities, and conventional precision strikes, have prompted changes in the implementation of China’s nuclear strategy to shore up its retaliatory capability.28 Chinese experts have continued to follow U.S. missile defense developments carefully, including expansion of interceptor numbers and interest in space-based defenses discussed by the Pentagon’s 2019 Missile Defense Review,29 and a Standard Missile-3 missile interceptor test on an ICBM in late 2020.

The SM-3 missile, shown in a test launch during a ballistic missile exercise in 2012, is among the U.S. systems whose development Chinese experts are following closely. (Photo by Hum Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)Chinese strategists also are concerned by perceived U.S. moves to “lower the nuclear threshold” by threatening to retaliate for counterspace and cyberattacks, as implied in the report of the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and the low-yield supplemental capabilities that the Biden administration retained in the NPR report released last year.30 These concerns likely are driven by questions about how China might deter or respond to U.S. limited strikes. One recent study indicates that Chinese experts also are more concerned than previously about U.S. conventional strike capabilities and stronger U.S. incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with China.31

Although the concerns of Chinese experts about the adequacy of China’s retaliatory capability have been steadily increasing, they have not increased so dramatically as to offer a fully satisfying explanation for the unprecedented nuclear modernization effort. Specifically, expert views cannot account for two important adjustments in China’s response to U.S. counterforce capabilities. First, China now appears determined to develop a much more robust retaliatory capability that sets a higher threshold for unacceptable damage to deter the United States. China most likely wants to eliminate the U.S. capability to limit damage from a Chinese retaliatory nuclear strike. Although the U.S. damage limitation capability was already thin and diminishing in 2016,32 Chinese experts at that time did not believe that capability gave Washington much coercive leverage. They were confident that the United States would view the level of damage that China could inflict in a nuclear retaliatory strike as sufficient for deterrence even if that level of damage fell well short of the Cold War standard of assured destruction.

China’s dual-use DF-26 missile, which provides it with a more sophisticated capability for limited nuclear retaliation, was first revealed in a military parade in Beijing in 2015. (Photo by Xinhua/Lin Yiguang via Getty Images)Second, China is acquiring a more sophisticated capability for limited nuclear retaliation, relying mainly on its accurate DF-26 missile. Before 2019, Chinese experts indicated that the country’s modest arsenal, which included a small number of inaccurate theater-range nuclear weapons and strategic nuclear forces, were sufficient to deter limited attacks.33 China could still develop a much more formidable theater nuclear force than it is currently fielding. There is little evidence linking the DF-26 missile capability to operations for limited retaliation.34 These two adjustments in China’s response to U.S. counterforce capabilities signal a departure from the more relaxed view of how much is enough to deter an adversary that, until recently, characterized China’s nuclear posture. Many nuclear strategists would consider these changes to be reasonable, stabilizing, and overdue measures to entrench a nuclear stalemate between the United States and China. The question remains why they are finally occurring now.

New Ambitions?

One possibility is that a conventional conflict between the United States and China appears more likely today than five or 10 years ago. According to U.S. civilian officials and military leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who commands the PLA as chairman of the Central Military Commission, has instructed the PLA to attain the capability to achieve reunification with Taiwan by force by 2027. Preparing for this conventional contingency might have led China’s leaders to reexamine the adequacy of its nuclear force structure. Some U.S. experts have argued that China likely is seeking a stronger retaliatory capability as a nuclear shield to ensure that it could conduct conventional operations without worrying about U.S. nuclear coercion.35 Beijing might seek that shield against U.S. threats either to use nuclear weapons first for coercive leverage or to attack China’s nuclear arsenal using its counterforce capabilities. Concerns that China might rely on a nuclear shield to enable conventional operations across the Taiwan Strait have only deepened since Russia began to issue nuclear threats during its war in Ukraine to deter NATO’s direct military involvement.

Concerns that China might rely on a nuclear shield to enable conventional operations against Taiwan have deepened since Russia issued nuclear threats during its war against Ukraine. (Photo by Gallo Images / Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2019)A key assumption underlying this nuclear shield argument is that PLA conventional military operational planning influences China’s nuclear planning. Yet, until at least 2019, China’s decisions to continue its nuclear strategy had been decoupled from its decisions to change its conventional military strategy.36 PLA leaders promulgated a new generation of operational regulations in November 2020, which might have created an opportunity to address this decoupling. Yet, there is little evidence to support the possibility of tighter integration of China’s nuclear and conventional strategy, planning, or force building.

China’s nuclear modernization also could reflect the first steps toward a posture that would embrace the first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict. U.S. experts warned that “Chinese theater nuclear forces could…giv[e] Beijing the ability to make limited nuclear threats at the outset of a conflict with the aim of preventing, postponing, or severely limiting any U.S. military intervention.”37 Although China’s nuclear modernization program enables it to more credibly threaten nuclear first use if it chose to abandon its no-first-use policy at any point, its arsenal has some way to go before it is optimized for this goal.

Embrace of a first-use nuclear posture would be a significant departure from China’s existing retaliatory posture. It would indicate a change in how the country has pursued coercive leverage in conventional wars since the end of the Cold War. China has relied on cyberattacks, counterspace weapons, and precision conventional missiles for coercive leverage as a substitute for a nuclear first-use posture. This “strategic substitution” approach, however, was a gamble, and no other nuclear-armed state has adopted it. China took this approach because it did not think that threats of using nuclear weapons first were credible under conditions of mutual nuclear vulnerability and because it lacked the conventional military power to achieve its war aims without some additional source of coercive leverage.

If China were to rely instead on a nuclear first-use posture for coercive leverage, either its assessments of the credibility of nuclear threats would have to increase or its confidence in its current strategic substitutes would have to plummet. China’s approach to gaining coercive leverage was built on an assumption that the United States would be unlikely to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with China. In the context of a changing conventional military balance in East Asia, the last two U.S. NPRs have called that assumption into question. Although this change could undermine China’s confidence in its current approach, it also could prompt Beijing to pursue a stronger nuclear shield and a better capability for limited nuclear retaliation to deter U.S. nuclear use in response to China’s strategic use of its counterspace weapons, cyberattacks, and precision conventional missiles.

Leaders and Advisers

Whether China seeks a larger, more sophisticated nuclear arsenal to better secure its second-strike capability or to pursue new goals, its nuclear modernization raises questions about whether the views of its decision-makers or its nuclear decision-making process has changed. The top leader’s views about the appropriate role of nuclear weapons have been the most important variable determining China’s nuclear posture since 1964.38 Hence, Xi would have had to approve changes to China’s nuclear forces. One Chinese scholar hinted at Xi’s personal involvement in nuclear modernization decisions when he wrote that, “to adapt to the changing circumstances in international security, President Xi Jinping personally (qinzi) planned and prepared the building of strategic forces.”39 It remains unclear how and why Xi believes that a stronger nuclear force will better equip China to confront those changing circumstances, whether as instruments of political leverage in a peacetime great-power competition or as coercive leverage in a crisis or conflict.

It is also likely that the relative influence of different organizations over China’s nuclear decisions has shifted. The missile force might have gained more influence over nuclear strategy when the Second Artillery was elevated to a full service and renamed the PLARF at the end of 2015. PLA experts have advocated for better theater nuclear capabilities, a launch-on-warning status, and a triad of delivery systems since the 1990s,40 but their proposals previously fell on deaf ears among civilian decision-makers. On the other hand, Chinese nuclear scientists and missile engineers, who historically have had much more influence over nuclear strategy, have seen their influence diluted in the past two decades. They tend to be China’s strongest advocates of restrained nuclear policies such as no first use and arms control. In addition, one Chinese expert wrote in 2021 that Chinese nuclear policy experts “appear cut out of internal policy deliberations.”41 As such, there is some evidence to suggest that a different and possibly narrower set of views are shaping China’s ongoing nuclear modernization decisions.

The Challenges of Ambiguity

More research is needed to unpack the goals and motivations for China’s nuclear modernization. Until both are better understood, the United States should avoid the temptation to assume the worst about China’s motivations and proceed with caution in its policy responses to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy. If China has yet to decide to shift to a launch-on-warning alert status; arm cruise, hypersonic, and short-range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads; restart fissile material production; field an orbital bombardment system; or adopt an operational doctrine envisaging limited nuclear war-fighting, it is in the U.S. interest for China not to take these steps toward an arms race, first-use posture, or more accident-prone alert status.

The ambiguity surrounding the goals and motivations of China’s nuclear modernization poses challenges for Beijing too. China’s goal simply still may be fielding a more robust nuclear deterrent sufficient to counter improving U.S. counterforce capabilities. If so, China is no longer implementing that goal with the same discipline and restraint that it displayed in the past. By deploying delivery systems that are not particularly survivable or well suited for first use, such as missiles silos and nonstealthy bomber aircraft, China risks fielding an arsenal that is not entirely consistent with its goal. A nuclear modernization effort that lacks discipline and restraint may open the door for China to adopt other nuclear goals in the future. At the moment, it sends mixed signals to adversaries, who are more likely to pay attention to the most threatening aspects of China’s growing arsenal rather than its remaining gaps and weaknesses.



1. M. Taylor Fravel, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 243-246.

2. Some of the proposed exceptions to China’s no-first-use policy included a scenario involving Taiwan, because cross-strait affairs are framed as domestic politics in China; if China were suffering sustained air raids threatening the survival of the state; or if China’s arsenal were damaged by U.S. conventional capabilities. See M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Posture,” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Fall 2010): 80; Michael S. Chase, Andrew S. Erickson, and Christopher Yeaw, “Chinese Theater and Strategic Missile Force Modernization and Its Implications for the United States,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2009): 67-114; Evan S. Medeiros, “‘Minding the Gap’: Assessing the Trajectory of the PLA’s Second Artillery,” in Right-Sizing the People’s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China’s Military, ed. Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute and Army War College Press, 2007), pp. 143-190.

3. Fiona S. Cunningham, “Strategic Substitution: China’s Search for Coercive Leverage in the Information Age,” International Security, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Summer 2022): 46-92.

4. Xiao Tianliang, ed., Zhanlue Xue [The science of military strategy] (Beijing: Guofang Daxue Chubanshe [National Defense University Press], 2020), pp. 383-387, translation by author.

5. Fiona S. Cunningham, “Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications Systems of the People’s Republic of China,” Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, July 18, 2019, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/nuclear-command-control-and-communications-systems-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china/?view=pdf.

6. Mark A. Stokes, “China’s Nuclear Warhead Storage and Handling System,” Project 2049 Institute, March 12, 2010, https://project2049.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/chinas_nuclear_warhead_storage_and
. Open sources were silent on the command and control arrangements for China’s ballistic missile submarine force.

7. U.S. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2022,” 2022, pp. 97-98, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Nov/29/2003122279/-1/-1/1/2022-MILITARY-AND-SECURITY-DEVELOPMENTS-INVOLVING-THE-PEOPLES-REPUBLIC-OF-CHINA.PDF (hereinafter 2022 China report to Congress).

8. Hans M. Kristensen, Matt Korda, and Eliana Reynolds, “Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 2023,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 79, No. 2 (March 4, 2023): 108, https://doi.org/10.1080/00963402.2023.2178713.

9. Zhang Qiang, “‘Dongfeng-41’ Bufen Jishu Chaoguo Mei’E " [Parts of the ‘Dongfeng-41’ technology surpass the United States and Russia], Keji Ribao [Science and Technology Daily], November 23, 2017, translation by author.

10. Zhang Qiang, “Dongfeng-26 Jinru Huojian Jun Zhandou Xulie: Fanying Kuai Daji Zhunshe Yuancheng [The DF-26 enters the Rocket Force order of battle: Reflecting rapid strike, precision launch and long range], Keji Ribao [Science and Technology Daily], April 27, 2018, https://www.chinanews.com.cn/mil/2018/04-27/8501149.shtml., translation by author. The conventional variant of the DF-21 had an estimated circular error probability of 40 meters.

11. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2021,” 2021, p. 91, https://media.defense.gov/2021/Nov/03/2002885874/-1/-1/0/2021-CMPR-FINAL.PDF.

12. These units are also known as “equipment inspection regiments” (zhuangjian tuan). David C. Logan and Phillip C. Saunders, “Discerning the Drivers of China’s Evolving Nuclear Forces: Explanatory Models, Observable Indicators, and New Data,” China Strategic Perspectives, No. 18 (forthcoming).

13. 2022 China report to Congress, p. 99.

14. I thank Owen Coté Jr. for this point.

15. Xiao, Zhanlue Xue [The science of military strategy], 2020, p. 388; Xiao Tianliang, ed., Zhanlue Xue [The science of military strategy] (Beijing: Guofang Daxue Chubanshe [National Defense University Press, 2015), p. 368, translation by author.

16. Henrik Stålhane Hiim, M. Taylor Fravel, and Magnus Langset Trøan, “The Dynamics of an Entangled Security Dilemma: China’s Changing Nuclear Posture,” International Security, Vol. 47, No. 4 (2023): 170-171.

17. Owen R. Coté Jr., “Invisible Nuclear-Armed Submarines, or Transparent Oceans? Are Ballistic Missile Submarines Still the Best Deterrent for the United States?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 75, No. 1 (January 2, 2019): 30-35; Minnie Chan, “China’s New Nuclear Submarines Have Missiles That Can Hit More of US: Analysts,” South China Morning Post, May 2, 2021; Kristensen, Korda, and Reynolds, “Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 2023,” p. 125.

18. Zhang, “Dongfeng-26 Jinru Huojian Jun Zhandou Xulie [The DF-26 enters the Rocket Force order of battle],” translation by author.

19. David C. Logan, “Are They Reading Schelling in Beijing? The Dimensions, Drivers, and Risks of Nuclear-Conventional Entanglement in China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (2023): 5-55.

20. Xiao, Zhanlue Xue [The science of military strategy], 2015, p. 362; Xiao, Zhanlue Xue [The science of military strategy, 2020, p. 383, translation by author.

21. “Under Secretary Bonnie Jenkins’ Remarks: Nuclear Arms Control: A New Era?” U.S. Department of State, September 6, 2021, https://www.state.gov/under-secretary-bonnie-jenkins-remarks-nuclear-arms-control-a-new-era/.

22. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2021,” pp. 87-88.]

23. Eric Heginbotham et al., “The U.S.-China Military Scorecard,” RAND Corp., 2015, p. 314.

24. Charles L. Glaser and Steve Fetter, “Should the United States Reject MAD? Damage Limitation and U.S. Nuclear Strategy Toward China,” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Summer 2016): 79.

25. Wu Riqiang, “Living With Uncertainty: Modeling China’s Nuclear Survivability,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Spring 2020): 86.

26. Kristensen, Korda, and Reynolds, “Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 2023,” p. 124; 2022 China report to Congress, p. 167.

27. Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2015,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 71, No. 4 (2015): 78; 2022 China report to Congress, p. 65; Kristensen, Korda, and Reynolds, “Chinese Nuclear Weapons, 2023,” p. 119.

28. Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Strategy and U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” International Security, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Fall 2015): 7-50.

29. Wu Riqiang, “Xinban ‘Daodan Fangyu Shenyi Baogao’: Touchu Yizhi Buzhu de Chongdong" [The new edition of the ‘Missile Defense Review Report’: The urge to penetrate through continuous restraints], Shijie Zhishi [World affairs], No. 4 (2019), pp. 50-51, translation by author.

30. Liu Chong, “Mei ‘He Taishi Pinggu Baogao’ Chuandi Xiaoji Xinhao" [The U.S. ‘Nuclear Posture Review Report’ sends a negative signal], China.com, February 6, 2018, http://opinion.china.com.cn/opinion_21_178621.html; Lu Yin, Zhanlue Wending: Lilun Yu Shijian Wenti Yanjiu [Strategic stability: Concept and practice] (Beijing: Shishi Chubanshe [Current Affairs press], 2021), pp. 158-162, translation by author.

31. Hiim, Fravel, and Trøan, “Dynamics of an Entangled Security Dilemma.”

32. Glaser and Fetter, “Should the United States Reject MAD?”

33. Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Dangerous Confidence? Chinese Views of Nuclear Escalation,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2019): 61-109.

34. Hiim, Fravel, and Trøan, “Dynamics of an Entangled Security Dilemma," pp. 172-173.

35. Abraham M. Denmark and Caitlin Talmadge, “Why China Wants More and Better Nukes,” Foreign Affairs, November 19, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-11-19/why-china-wants-more-and-better-nukes.

36. Fravel, Active Defense, ch. 8.

37. Evan Braden Montgomery and Toshi Yoshihara, “The Real Challenge of China’s Nuclear Modernization,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 4 (2022): 47.

38. Fravel and Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation.”

39. Guo Xiaobing, “Changdao ‘lixing, Xietiao, Bingjin’ He Anquanguan Wanshan He Anquan Zhili Tixi" [Proposing a 'rational, collaborative, and progressive’ view of nuclear security, improving the nuclear security governance system], China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, October 24, 2022, http://www.cicir.ac.cn/NEW/opinion.html?id=1b1d9862-3098-4596-9fad-d48811e40861, translation by author.

40. Alastair Iain Johnston, “China’s New ‘Old Thinking’: The Concept of Limited Deterrence,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Winter 1995/96): 5-42.

41. Tong Zhao, “China’s Silence on Nuclear Arms Buildup Fuels Speculation on Motives,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 12, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/11/chinas-silence-on-nuclear-arms-buildup-fuels-speculation-on-motives/.


Fiona S. Cunningham is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a nonresident scholar in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article is based on a paper prepared for a workshop of the Director’s Strategic Resilience Initiative, Los Alamos National Laboratory, in March-April 2022.

Although some changes to China’s nuclear capabilities and their operations are observable, they do not provide clear evidence about what kind of nuclear arsenal China ultimately seeks and for what purpose. 

Japan’s Shift to a More Robust Self-Defense Policy

June 2023
By Yuki Tatsumi

On December 16, 2022, Japan released three key strategic and defense planning documents that changed its postwar security policy considerably.

With new commitments to nearly double defense spending and acquire counterstrike capabilities, Japan is stepping out of its decades-old approach to national security policy, particularly in defense policy. The defense policy has shifted from a postwar baseline of possessing just enough defensive capability to prevent a power vacuum from emerging in East Asia to one that aims to respond to specific threats.

A woman with a bag walks through the rubble around a residential building in Kyiv, which was shelled on May 30. The Russian war on Ukraine is one factor causing Japan to rethink its defense needs. (Photo by Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)Taken together, the revised National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Plan embody the considerable evolution of Japan’s threat perceptions in the last decade and its impact on national security policymaking. Given the security environment in Northeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region, the policy trendline that was set in these documents likely will continue at least for the next decade as Japan works to overcome formidable challenges and actualize its goals.

A Turn for the Worse

Japan embarked on its policy revision as it perceived that the regional security environment had taken a turn for the worse. The biggest driving force is the emergence of China as an economic behemoth and an increasingly aggressive military power that does not hesitate to flex its muscle. China began to outspend Japan on defense in the mid-2000s, and the gap between their military budgets has been widening ever since. Based on the defense budget that was unveiled at the Chinese People’s Congress meeting in March 2023, Beijing in fiscal year 2023 plans to spend approximately $224.8 billion, which is 4.5 times larger than Japan’s defense spending in the same year.1

Also affecting Japan’s threat perception is the extension of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior beyond Japan’s immediate vicinity into the South China Sea. In Northeast Asia, this has been demonstrated by the greater frequency of Chinese military aircraft entering Japanese airspace and the heightened activity of Chinese coast guard, military, and other governmental vessels in the East China Sea. Beijing’s increasingly robust approach toward Taipei also has worsened Tokyo’s concerns. Tensions ramped up particularly after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022 and China conducted a military drill in the Taiwan Strait.

A renewed intensification of North Korean missile provocations further added to Japanese security concerns. In 2022 alone, North Korea conducted 37 missile tests, firing more than 90 missiles. Of these missiles, 66 were ballistic missiles; and one test involved the firing in October of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which triggered the J-ALERT, Japan’s nationwide missile warning system, for the first time in five years. North Korea exhibited intercontinental ballistic missiles and the operating units for its nuclear weapons in a military parade in February 2023. Two months later, it test-fired another ballistic missile that again triggered the J-ALERT warning system.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 only deepened Japan’s concern for its security environment. It marked the first time in modern postwar history that a permanent member of the UN Security Council launched a war against another UN member state and served as a rude awakening for Japan, injecting policymakers in Tokyo with a cold dose of reality as they deliberated Japan’s options for its response. In particular, the Ukrainians’ clear and unambiguous will to defend their country and the international community’s collective backing for Ukraine reminded Japan that if its own territorial integrity comes under attack, it must demonstrate a similar credible will to defend itself in order to gain international support.

More importantly, Japan realized that it needs to develop the means to defend itself effectively from external aggression. Russia’s failure to secure an immediate victory over Ukraine, due in large part to weak supply lines and logistical capabilities, heightened Japan’s concern about the lack of investments in its own logistical capacity and, even more acutely, in the resiliency of the Japan Self-Defense Force.

Finally, the Russian-Ukrainian war exposed a reality in the international system, namely that the UN Security Council is limited in its ability to enable collective action when one of its permanent members is a party to the conflict. The inability of the United Nations to collectively respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a fresh reminder of the importance of universal norms and principles, such as the rule of law. It also encouraged Japan to double down on its advocacy for UN reform, particularly reform of the Security Council.

The U.S. Factor

Although less openly discussed, the volatility of U.S. foreign policy during President Donald Trump’s administration shook Japan’s confidence in the durability of U.S. leadership in the world. Japanese-U.S. relations remained stable during that era, due to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tireless effort to cultivate a personal relationship with Trump. Nonetheless, Japan perceived the United States as turning inward and relinquishing its leadership role in upholding the norms and values undergirding the international order.

Japan, seeking to arm itself with new self-defense capabilities, plans to buy U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles, such as this one launched by the U.S. Navy in 2011 during an operation in the Mediterranean Sea. (Photo by U.S. Navy via Getty Images)In particular, U.S. foreign policy choices that were based predominantly on reciprocity and a transactional approach toward U.S. allies and partners made Japanese policymakers question whether Tokyo could continue to count on Washington as a reliable ally in the long term. As a seasoned Japanese observer of U.S. foreign policy put it, “[I]f it turns out that what we saw during the Trump administration is not an anomaly but rather can easily come back in the future, we really ought to start thinking about ‘Plan B,’ which is a world where Japan may not be able to count” on the United States.2

Such developments encouraged Japanese policymakers to revise Tokyo’s three strategic security documents from the perspective of “what Japan needs to do better to defend itself.” Daily exposure to news about the Russian-Ukrainian war, Chinese military aircraft incursions into Japanese airspace, and North Korean missile tests facilitated governmental deliberations by creating an atmosphere that allowed Japanese officials to consider policy options that had been long considered taboo. Such options included the need for defense spending increases and the acquisition of counterstrike capabilities. Russia’s attempt to intimidate NATO countries by hinting at the potential use of nuclear weapons even resulted in a temporary resurgence of a debate over Japan’s nuclear future.

Modernizing Japan’s Approach

The end result was that the three documents collectively modernized Japan’s national security and defense policies. They were shaped by the assessment that China is Japan’s primary national security concern for at least the next decade. The National Security Strategy identified China as “the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan and the peace and stability of the international community, as well as in strengthening the international order based on the rule of law.”3

This is a notable departure from Japan’s past approach, in which it sought to strike a balance between calling China out for bad behavior while trying to engage the Beijing government in other areas. For instance, even when discussing in detail Chinese behavior that causes concern, Japan’s 2013 security strategy still mentioned an expectation that China would act responsibly and that its behavior, as problematic as it might be, was something that Japan needed to “pay careful and close attention to.”4

The new strategy documents also put Japan on a path to acquire new defense capabilities, including some that were unthinkable a decade ago. One example is Japan’s commitment to acquire counterstrike capabilities that include an initial purchase of several hundred U.S.-produced Tomahawk missiles. Although the defense strategy document takes pains to put this decision in the context of national defense, it previously was simply out of the question for Tokyo to even consider such capabilities, let alone proceed with acquiring them.

Contrary to past plans in which heavy emphasis was placed on the “efficient use,” i.e., cost-cutting, of the acquisition budget, the new defense buildup plan openly acknowledged for the first time that industries need incentives, otherwise known as business profits, to stay in the defense-related business and produce equipment that is critical for Japan to revitalize its indigenous defense industrial base. Tokyo’s commitment to increase defense-related spending by approximately 2 percent of its gross domestic product, or a total of roughly $320 billion over the next five years,5 is another example of how the country is shattering politically self-imposed constraints in its postwar national security policy.

The three documents also embrace a broader definition of national security. In particular, the focus on economic security in the national security strategy is noteworthy because it centered not only on critical economic issues, such as supply chain resilience, but also on economic issues that have long been neglected, such as safeguarding the procurement of critical infrastructure and protecting critical infrastructure locations, data, information, and industrial security.

The new policies also acknowledge that rapid progress in developing advanced technologies has blurred the line between “offense” and “defense” in the military context and between technologies suited for civilian and military use. More broadly, such recognition has facilitated a discussion among Japanese officials about advocating an all-of-government approach to shaping effective responses in the areas of economic security, space, and cybersecurity.

Overall, the new national security documents seek to provide an answer as to how Japan must reshape and modernize its security and defense policies to meet a rapidly changing threat environment. Notably, the policies pay overdue attention to the areas that have long deserved greater consideration, such as investments in force protection, logistical support capacity, military medicine, and ammunition shortages.

The Challenges Ahead

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has asked his government to identify ways to increase defense spending in a sustainable way but the public is said to be ambivalent. (Photo by Rodrigo Reyes Marin/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Nevertheless, Tokyo faces formidable challenges in achieving the desired results, with resourcing as the biggest hurdle. Although Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida directed the government to identify ways in which it could secure increased defense spending in a sustainable manner, the public is ambivalent at best. Given Japan’s weak fiscal condition, some type of tax increase, whether individual income taxes, consumption taxes, corporate taxes, or a combination, coupled with spending cuts in nondefense programs, inevitably will be required to finance a rise in defense spending. An opinion poll by Niohn Hoso Kyokai in February 2023 shows that the public is evenly split on whether to support higher defense spending. It also shows that close to 65 percent of the respondents oppose using a tax increase to finance bigger defense budgets. Without public backing, it is questionable that the government could find a path to increase the defense budget in a sustainable manner.

Furthermore, demographic trends could complicate Tokyo’s effort to buttress national defense capabilities. According to Japanese government statistics, nearly 30 percent of the country’s population was over 65 years old in the fall of 2021, and by 2065 that aging group will account for nearly 40 percent of the population. In the face of this demographic reality, how to sustain the Japan Self-Defense Force at its current size is a question that, at the moment, no one can answer. Although two of the strategy documents stress the significance of better utilizing unmanned technologies to relieve some of the pressure that will come from the aging population, it is difficult to maintain a robust fighting force when nearly half of the country’s population is at retirement age or older.

As it wrestles with these challenges, Japan needs a strong leader with a clear vision to complete the national security transformation that has now been outlined. Given the absence of a visionary such as Abe, its successful implementation is anything but certain. Although Kishida, with his image as a moderate and a consensus builder, may have been the right person at the right time to complete the revision of the three documents, it is uncertain whether he has the political gravitas to inspire the Japanese people and rally them behind the execution of his vision.



1. “Chugoku Kokubou-hi 30-chou yen amari, Kyonen yori 7.2% zouka de Gunbi Zoukyou Shisei shimesu” [China’s defense spending approximately JPY 30 trillion, 7.2% increase compared to last year, demonstrating the will to strengthen its military], Nihon Housou Kyoukai, March 5, 2023, https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20230305/k10013998901000.html#:~:text=2016%E5%B9%B4%E4%BB%A5%E9%99%8D%E3%81%AE%E4%BC%B8%E3%81%B3,%E3%81%BB%E3%81%A9%E3%81%AB%E3%81%AA%E3%81%A3%E3%81%A6%E3%81%84%E3%81%BE%E3%81%99%E3%80%82.

2. Senior Japanese foreign policy correspondent, conversation with author, Tokyo, April 28, 2023.

3. Government of Japan, “National Security Strategy of Japan,” December 2022, https://www.mod.go.jp/j/policy/agenda/guideline/pdf/security_strategy_en.pdf.

4. Government of Japan, “National Security Strategy,” December 17, 2013, https://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/documents/2013/_icsFiles/afieldfile/2013/12/18/NSS.pdf.

5. “Defense Buildup Plan,” December 16, 2022, https://www.mod.go.jp/j/policy/agenda/guideline/plan/pdf/program_en.pdf.


Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center.

Japan’s defense policy has shifted from a postwar baseline of possessing just enough defensive capability to prevent a power vacuum from emerging in East Asia to one that aims to respond to specific threats.

Winning the Game of Chicken With Memes: Ukrainian Reactions to Russian Threats

June 2023
By Valeriia Hesse

Russia made numerous nuclear threats during the first 15 months of its war against Ukraine. Last September, as Russia annexed four Ukrainian regions, claimed them to be under its nuclear shield, and escalated its rhetoric, analysts all over the world assessed the probability of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons as becoming increasingly likely. Understandably, Ukrainians have been alarmed by such an apocalyptic possibility, but they have found a unique way to cope with it through humor and to continue supporting their national leaders in the brutal fight to expel Russian forces from Ukrainian territory.

Ukrainians have remained remarkably resourceful as they fight to repel Russian invaders. These Ukrainian soldiers were on the frontline near Bakhmut in April. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The reactions of Ukrainians show that Russian nuclear threats did not work as expected. Russia’s genocidal rhetoric and Ukraine’s traumatic history have shaped these public reactions. Ukrainians are treating this war as a national survival issue. Although they reasonably suppose that it is possible for the state and the culture as a whole to survive a limited nuclear attack or other catastrophe, such as a nuclear power plant disaster, they do not believe that it is possible to survive full Russian occupation.

Nuclear deterrence has worked in accordance with nuclear deterrence theory because Russian nuclear weapons threats and capabilities have played a large role in preventing NATO’s direct involvement in the war and in limiting the kinds of weapons systems that Ukraine’s Western allies are willing to provide. At the same time, Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship has failed so far to intimidate the Ukrainian public and to force its leaders to give in, thus imbuing the future understanding of nuclear deterrence with a curious spin. One way in which Ukrainian perseverance has manifested itself, through humor, has had an unexpected influence on nuclear coercion dynamics.

The Intent of Russian Intimidation

The world understandably has been alarmed by Russia’s nuclear threats because its national military doctrine stipulates that nuclear weapons can be used in conventional conflicts “when the very existence of the state is threatened.”1 From the beginning, it has been clear that if Russia loses this war, the survival of its regime, at a minimum, is under threat. Another Russian document, the Foundations of State Policy of Nuclear Deterrence, names territorial integrity as the main priority protected by Russia’s nuclear deterrent.2 The formulation sounds ambiguous and is difficult to interpret, especially in the light of Russia claiming to be “one” with Ukraine and occupying Ukrainian lands. This uncertainty has left the global community wondering whether the world will see the first battlefield use of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, thus ending the decades-long nuclear taboo.

Russia’s nuclear coercion tactics have underscored the seriousness of the state’s determination to intimidate Ukrainians and suppress any resistance and more so to block external help to Ukraine. “Coerce” can have two meanings: to force and to restrain. Coercion can be defined as latent violence intended at manipulating the target’s perception of costs to prevent them from acting (deterrence, status quo preservation) or to compel them to act (compellence, change of status quo).3 The key is to convince the adversary that losses from actions in the first case and from the lack of desired actions in the second case will significantly exceed the benefits. Accordingly, one important element of these coercion tactics is the opponent’s threat perception.

Intimidation and fear as tactics to obtain a desired result are taking many forms in this war, from Russia’s grave atrocities against civilians to mass missile and drone attacks and devastating strikes on energy infrastructure. All are aimed at forcing civilians to pressure Ukrainian authorities to surrender and the Ukrainian people have seemed to understand this.4 Two of these forms have a nuclear component that instrumentalize radiophobia: nuclear weapons threats and radiological emergency risks.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued what was interpreted as his first nuclear threat. In a speech, he promised that if other states “obstruct” Russian operations, “Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready.” Three days later, the nuclear component of the invasion became more prominent when Putin ordered that Russian deterrence forces be put on high combat alert as an element of nuclear signaling.5 That was the first time since the 1960s that a world leader had issued such a threat publicly.

Source: Ukrainian Memes Forces, @uamemesforces, June 24, 2022.Despite the fact that attacks on nuclear power plants do not fall under the category of nuclear weapons threats, the “nuclear” component of the threats engenders similar types of fears. Radiophobia is an extreme fear of ionizing radiation, which has been studied since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and has continued to be observed following the latest disaster at Fukushima in 2011.6 Russia’s attacks on and seizures of nuclear power facilities, especially the prolonged occupation of the Zaporizhzhia complex, signify the weaponization of critical infrastructure in Ukraine, the sociopsychological effects of which are exploited for compellence purposes. Such behavior by Russian forces clearly sent a signal enhancing nuclear resolve and showed that Russia has no fear of radioactive contamination. Russian forces and leadership just needed to appear irrational enough to be willing to risk a nuclear catastrophe for the sake of achieving military goals. This tactic resembles the so-called game of chicken that is used to explain nuclear deterrence, in which the leader who seems more irrational and willing to risk nuclear obliteration to protect their core interest wins.

Source: Telegram: Chief Meme Officer, https://t.me/hahafumny/72, May 22, 2022. Winning With Memes

Russia’s irrationality seemed credible to most external players and helped to successfully deter NATO from intervening in the war directly and from supplying certain types of weapons to Ukraine. Such compellence did not work as expected against Ukrainians. The leadership in Kyiv took the Russian threats seriously but refused to cave. Throughout, the general population has been supportive of the official position in Kyiv because the absolute majority believed that the loss from a Ukrainian surrender would outweigh the loss from experiencing a nuclear strike. For Ukrainians, this is a fight against annihilation. Having heard Russia’s genocidal rhetoric,7 seen what had happened in Bucha and in other previously Russian-occupied territories,8 and remembered the nation’s centuries-long historic trauma,9 Ukrainians decided to ignore the nuclear threats as the only hope to survive as they continued the fight. The nation lived through the biggest nuclear accident in history in 1986 and also saw that there is life after death in the example of modern-day Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In desperate situations, humor can be a workable survival tactic. Throughout this devastating war, Ukrainians have shown an incredible ability to view their situation through the prism of humor, some of which came directly from the frontline via social media.10 A genre that became particularly popular is wartime memes reflecting major themes that were in line with Ukrainian leadership positions and the views of most Ukrainians.

One theme was the inevitability of perseverance and refusal to surrender (fig. 1).

Source: Ukrainian Memes Forces, @uamemesforces, April 17, 2022.Another theme drew on the fallacy of the idea of a diplomatic solution (fig. 2).

There were also memes mocking Russian nuclear threats (figs. 3 and 4).

As the situation on the ground developed, the first Ukrainian counteroffensive, which started on August 29, achieved significant progress and pushed Putin to more radical actions and rhetoric. Russia eventually realized that it would not conquer the whole of Ukraine and that its calls for Ukrainians to surrender under mass missile attacks were not working. Putin’s goal shifted to preserving Russian territorial gains, especially the land corridor to Crimea. After his decision to hold a referendum on September 21, illegally integrating four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions into Russia, Putin promised to defend Russia’s territorial integrity using all weapons available, including nuclear systems, and said, “This is not a bluff.”11

Source: Ukrainian Memes Forces, @uamemesforces, May 21, 2022.At that point, even the expert community was alarmed. Analysts all over the world started assessing the probability of tactical nuclear weapons use as more significant. Ukrainian media headlines frequently asked, “Will Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?” At the same time, many news articles focused on why there is no sense for Russia to employ nuclear weapons and how it would bring no tactical military advantage.12 In some sense, these articles shaped the general public’s response by outlining credible reasons why Russia would not use nuclear weapons. If there were no military advantage, then the goal of the threats was to intimidate the population and pressure the government to stop fighting. The Ukrainian population seemed to share the realization that if there were a diplomatic compromise and some parts of the state still remained occupied, Russia in time would regain the strength to reignite the war, so Ukrainians kept fighting.

In this period of high tension, Ukrainians once again resorted to humor, creating a shocking and effective paradoxical ridicule of nuclear war that went viral, eventually reaching Russian TV and Russian political earsTranslation: “When you signed up for the orgy and now are waiting for a nuclear war” Source: Mariia Suprun, “‘Orgy on Shchekavytsia’: The Network Was Flooded With Memes About Gatherings of Ukrainians on the Mountain in the Event of a Nuclear Explosion," Big Kyiv, September 28, 2022, https://bigkyiv.com.ua/orgiya-na-shhekavyczi-merezhu-zapolonyly-memy-pro-zbory-ukrayincziv-na-gori-v-razi-yadernogo-vybuhu/.13 On September 24, as Moscow continued what you might call a this-is-not-a-bluff approach, some members of the Kyiv Telegram messenger community proposed holding an orgy at Shchekavytsia, an area in Kyiv, in case of a nuclear strike.14 In addition to ordinary citizens, famous people, network providers, and grocery store chains produced numerous jokes and memes about it (figs. 5 and 6).15

Bolstered by strong international diplomatic pressure on Moscow16 and strong Ukrainian public support for Kyiv’s determination to continue fighting, this reaction reflecting the public’s threat perception has shaped the wartime narrative. Failing to achieve its intended purpose, Russia has dialed down the nuclear rhetoric. In a major speech on October 27, Putin was much less provocative when he said, “After all, we have never said anything proactively about Russia potentially using nuclear weapons. All we did was hint in response to statements made by Western leaders.”17 Moreover, on November 2, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reaffirmed the 2022 joint statement by the leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states on preventing nuclear war.

Ever since then, Moscow’s nuclear rhetoric has become significantly less prominent in the war context. For example, Russia’s previously stated redline was the supply of long-range weapons systems or more powerful Western weapons systems to Ukraine.18 Yet, despite agonizing over the decision, many nations have delivered tanks and other heavy weapons and systems to Ukraine; and luckily, no nuclear strike folTranslation: “Don’t worry, there will be 16 counters open in the store near Shchekavytsia,”  Source: Twitter: Silpo (Ukrainian grocery store chain) @silpo_ua, https://twitter.com/silpo_ua/status/1574370597848682498, September 26, 2022. lowed. Even more surprising, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, who often wields a nuclear-threat bullhorn, did not even mention using the entirety of Russia’s nuclear potential in response to increasingly frequent Ukrainian strikes on Crimea. Instead, he limited himself to promising conventional punishment on the battlefield and “retribution against key figures of the Nazi regime,” a disparaging reference to the Ukrainian government.19

Ukraine is an unprecedented example of how little is known about the power of humor and social media to influence international politics and how individuals can start a butterfly effect of public engagement contributing to dramatic turns in global politics. The game of chicken is what unites deterrence and compellence, nuclear weapons threats, and hybrid threats exploiting radiophobia, and Russia seems to be losing it to memes. Of course, it is not the humor per se that won the game in this chapter of the war but rather the population’s threat perception and the consequent conventional military resolve. Ridicule of Russia united Ukrainians to defend their country and, for now at least, has killed Russian hopes of pressuring Ukraine’s leadership to change its behavior and cave.




1. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, “Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” December 30, 2014, https://rg.ru/documents/2014/12/30/doktrina-dok.html (in Russian).

2. President of Russia, “Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of June 2, 2020,
No. 355,” n.d., http://www.kremlin.ru/acts/bank/45562 (in Russian).

3. Thomas Shelling, Arms and Influence (London: Yale University Press, 2020), pp. 2-4; Polina Sinovets, Double Faced Yanus or Nuclear Deterrence Theory in the XXI Century (Odesa: Fenix, 2008), pp. 8-9.

4. Victoria Namestnik, “How Russian Propaganda Uses Intimidation Tactics,” Detector Media, February 27, 2023, https://disinfo.detector.media/post/yak-rosiiska-propahanda-vykorystovuie-taktyku-zaliakuvannia; Olha Kotiv, “‘There Is No Chance of Survival’: How Ukraine Met Spring, and Putin’s Winter Terror Failed,” 24 Channel, March 1, 2023, https://24tv.ua/zalyakuvannya-ukrayini-zimoyu-plan-putina-zamoroziti-ukrayintsiv_n2265364.

5. Telegraph, “Putin Declares Military Offensive in Ukraine as Invasion Starts,” YouTube, February 24, 2022, https://youtu.be/_5YeX8eCLgA; Andrew Roth et al., “Putin Signals Escalation As He Puts Russia’s Nuclear Force on High Alert,” Guardian, February 28, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com

6. John C.H. Lindberg and Denali Archer, “Radiophobia: Useful Concept, or Ostracising Term?” Progress in Nuclear Energy, Vol. 149 (July 2022), 104280.

7. Olesya Kotubeii, “Ethnic Cleansing: The Article ‘What Russia Should Do With Ukraine’ Was Published on the Russian State Website,” Suspilne, April 4, 2022, https://suspilne.media/225052-etnicni-cistki-na-derzavnomu-rosijskomu-sajti-vijsla-statta-so-rosia-mae-zrobiti-z-ukrainou/.

8. Richard Connor, “Russia’s Ukraine Violations ‘Shockingly Routine,’” Deutsche Welle, March 31, 2023, https://www.dw.com/en/russias-ukraine-violations-shockingly-routine/a-65196353.

9. Roberto Cancio, Anastasiia Kuptsevych-Timmer, and Marisa Omori, “Perpetual War With the Brother Nation: An Analysis of Ukrainian Veterans, Cultural Identity and Historical Trauma,” Journal of War & Culture Studies, Vol 13, No. 3 (2020): 219-236; Yaroslava Muzychenko, “The Rake of Russian Atrocities: How Putin’s Russia Continues Three Hundred Years of Terror Against Ukraine,” Radio Liberty, April 7, 2023, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/rosiya-zvirstva-viyna-ukrayina/31789267.html#comments.

10. Neil Bowdler, “How Ukrainians Are Using Humor to Boost Wartime Spirits,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, December 30, 2022, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukrainians-humor-war/32199082.html; Sofiya Maksymiv, “How Humor Helps Ukrainians Withstand War Atrocities,” Ukraine World, July 21, 2022, https://ukraineworld.org/articles/analysis/how-humor-helps-ukrainians.

11. President of Russia, “Address by the President of the Russian Federation,” September 21, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69390.

12. See Olga Mosyondz, “Will the Russian Federation Use Nuclear Weapons Against Ukraine?” ArmyInform, October 7, 2022, https://armyinform.com.ua/2022/10/01/chy-zastosuye-rf-proty-ukrayiny-yadernu-zbroyu/; Tetiana Kovalenko, “Putin Threatens Nuclear Weapons. Will He Use Them,” Korrespondent.net, September 21, 2022, https://ua.korrespondent.net/world/russia/4518463-putin-pohrozhuie-yadernoui-zbroieui-chy-zastosuie-vin-yii; “Putin's Blackmail. Will Russia Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine,” Focus, September 24, 2022, https://focus.ua/uk/voennye-novosti/530544-shantazh-putina-chi-zastosuye-rosiya-yadernu-zbroyu-v-ukrajini.

13. Ivan Havrylyak, “Orgy on Shchekavytsia. Rushists Rage About How Ukrainians Reacted to Nuclear Threats (Video),” Glavcom, October 6, 2022, https://glavcom.ua/video/orhija-na-shchekavitsi-rashisti-ljutujut-jak-ukrajintsi-vidreahuvali-na-jaderni-pohrozi-video-880250.htm.

14. Daryna Hrysiuk, “‘The World Was Catching Me, but I’m on Shchekavytsia.’ The Network Discusses the ‘Planned’ Orgy in Case of a Nuclear Attack in Kyiv,” NV, September 27, 2022, https://nv.ua/ukr/lifestyle/shchekavicya-ta-orgiya-pid-chas-yadernogo-udaru-shcho-obgovoryuyut-u-merezhi-kiyani-memi-2022-50272891.html.

15. Mariia Suprun, “‘Orgy on Shchekavytsia’: The Network Was Flooded With Memes About Gatherings of Ukrainians on the Mountain in the Event of a Nuclear Explosion,” Big Kyiv, September 28, 2022, https://bigkyiv.com.ua/orgiya-na-shhekavyczi-merezhu-zapolonyly-memy-pro-zbory-ukrayincziv-na-gori-v-razi-yadernogo-vybuhu/.

16. Paul Sonne and John Hudson, “U.S. Has Sent Private Warnings to Russia Against Using a Nuclear Weapon,” The Washington Post, September 22, 2022; Nectar Gan, “As Russia Raises Nuclear Specter in Ukraine, China Looks the Other Way,” CNN, September 23, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/22/china/russia-mobilization-china-intl-hnk-mic/index.html.

17. President of Russia, “Valdai International Discussion Club meeting,” October 27, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69695.

18. Valery Sharifulin, “The Russian Foreign Ministry Called the Supply of Long-Range Weapons to Kyiv the Red Line for Russia,” Tass, October 9, 2022, https://tass.ru/politika/15998669.

19. Dmitry Medvedev, “The Kyiv Dog Continues to Bark,” Telegram, April 29, 2023, https://t.me/medvedev_telegram/317 (in Russian).

Valeriia Hesse is a researcher at the Odesa Center for Nonproliferation in Ukraine with expertise in nuclear issues, including nonproliferation, security, risk reduction, deterrence, and disarmament. Her research was supported by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in cooperation with Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung e.V. 

Ukrainians have found a unique way to cope with Russian nuclear threats through humor and it has helped them to continue supporting the brutal fight to expel Russian forces from their country. 

Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program

June 2023

Missed Opportunities With North Korea

Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program
By Siegfried S. Hecker
Stanford University Press

Reviewed by Sharon Squassoni

The 70th anniversary of the alliance between South Korea and the United States this spring provided a much-needed opportunity to underline the two countries’ solidarity and commitment to peace and security in Northeast Asia. North Korea’s unrelenting missile tests and China’s awkward support for Russian sabotage of the so-called international order undoubtedly have made South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol nervous. His own plan to rein in North Korea, the boldly named Audacious Plan, was rejected summarily last year by Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Anyone hoping for creative new ideas on reducing the threat from North Korea at the White House summit in April between Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden was disappointed. That, however, was not really the point. The Washington Declaration that the two leaders announced in the Rose Garden on April 26 was all about ally reassurance. For months, South Korean policy elites had been taking the temperature in Washington on nuclear options to improve regional security. Between two disastrous and, one hopes, impossible options—the return of U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea or the development of an indigenous South Korean nuclear arsenal—lay a less offensive approach to create a NATO-like nuclear-sharing arrangement.

It is this third option that unwisely forms the basis of the declaration. Although there is no mention of NATO in the text, the announced creation of a Nuclear Consultative Group is clearly a nod to NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group. The problem is that NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements involve weapons that are stationed on European soil, whereas South Korea has not hosted U.S. nuclear weapons on its soil since 1991, when the United States withdrew nonstrategic nuclear weapons in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The declaration refers specifically to South Korean “conventional support to U.S. nuclear operations in a contingency” and to improved “combined exercises and training activities on the application of nuclear deterrence on the Korean peninsula.” Yoon, in a speech at Harvard University later in the week, called the declaration “an inevitable choice” and suggested that the new bilateral arrangement would be more effective than NATO nuclear weapon-sharing agreements.

Despite this, it is more than likely that South Korea walked away with less in the declaration than it had hoped. The declaration specified that the “U.S. commitment to extended deterrence to [South Korea] is backed by the full range of U.S. capabilities, including nuclear.” Explicit mention of U.S. nuclear capabilities now seems necessary, given the flurry of protests in Asia when the Biden administration seemed to waver last year about whether it would respond to Russian nuclear use with nuclear weapons. On a positive note, South Korea reiterated its commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), even if it did not extol the security virtues of forswearing nuclear weapons.

Yoon’s postsummit remarks hinted at his frustrations. He confidently told the audience that, of course, South Korea could make nuclear weapons if it so chose. “However, nuclear weapons are not just a matter of technology. There are complex politics and economics and political and economic equations related to nuclear weapons,” he said. “There are various values and interests that must be given up when possessing nuclear weapons.” Yoon clearly understands that his choice was between his own nuclear weapons and the U.S.-South Korean alliance, but it is damning that the solution is to renuclearize extended deterrence when the United States has committed repeatedly to reducing reliance on nuclear weapons.

The message that only nuclear weapons bring security is not one that will be lost on Kim Jong Un. Although Yoon may be forgoing his own nuclear weapons now in favor of closer planning with Washington on U.S. nuclear deterrence, the extended deterrence equation always fails to eliminate nuclear weapons as a reasonable recourse.

To longtime observers, the Biden-Yoon summit is the latest chapter in decades of ineffectual policies to reduce the nuclear threat from North Korea. Isolating, berating, and belittling North Korea, in combination with ostentatious displays of U.S. nuclear might, have rarely caused the hermit kingdom to cease its provocative actions. There is no reason why South Korea and the United States would believe the latest actions outlined in the Washington Declaration would be effective. They are a temporary measure aimed more at dampening South Korea’s domestic debate rather than encouraging North Korean cooperation.

 Siegfried Hecker testifies before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2004 after visiting North Korea’s Yongbyon research complex.   (Photo by Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images)Discerning why and how North Korea has made choices to roll back, freeze, or accelerate its nuclear arsenal development is particularly tough. Thankfully, John Lewis, a Stanford University professor who played a leading role in facilitating dialogue with North Korea, recruited Siegfried Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, to travel multiple times to North Korea to engage in discussions with technical and political officials and to visit key nuclear sites. Hecker’s first trip took place in 2004, and he traveled nearly every year to North Korea until 2010. His experiences and analysis are captured engagingly in this book.

An unwilling recruit at first, Hecker had planned to spend his retirement on topics on which he was more expert, collaborating as best he could with Russian scientists in cooperative threat reduction initiatives and building ties with Chinese nuclear weapons scientists to improve nuclear security. He certainly had his share of “nuclear tourism” in far-flung places, including Russia’s nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, where he discovered that the Russians had left intact nuclear devices in testing shafts. Inordinately modest, Hecker has produced a masterful analysis not just of the policy debates, decisions, and mistakes that have produced a standoff with North Korea, but also of the technical dilemmas faced in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and in the United States’ own expectations and analysis of the North’s achievements.

Hecker argues that there were at least six hinge points in the last 20 years when outcomes could have been vastly different if different choices had been made. His underlying assumption is that the North Koreans have always pursued a dual-track approach: developing nuclear weapons for security and negotiating them away for economic and security gains. This analysis assumes that, with the right incentives, cooperation is possible.

The first hinge point occurred in October 2002, when the Bush administration torpedoed the 1994 Agreed Framework, a deal to provide light-water reactors and heavy fuel oil in exchange for North Korea’s shutdown of its plutonium-production reactor and reprocessing plant. Rather than working through the agreement to resolve compliance issues, the Bush administration effectively shattered the deal, triggering North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT. The second hinge point occurred in September 2005 when the Bush administration undermined the joint statement agreed during the six-party talks, and a third fateful decision came when the Obama administration walked away from the Leap Day deal in response to a North Korean satellite launch.

In January 2015, the Obama administration failed to take North Korea’s proposed nuclear testing moratorium seriously, after which the North Koreans conducted three more nuclear tests. In February 2019, President Donald Trump literally walked away from the Hanoi summit with Kim because the two sides failed to agree on what might be captured in the definition of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. There are many more missteps in U.S. policymaking, but Hecker identifies these as the major ones and highlights how the North Korean nuclear weapons program benefited in their aftermath. At one point, he suggests that, “History will not be kind to Washington.”

A metallurgist by training, Hecker was perhaps the perfect interlocutor to discuss Pyongyang’s then-plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. As a career government scientist working on nuclear weapons, however, he also was aware of the security risks of his travel to North Korea. Surprised at first that he was given permission to travel, he meticulously documented his discussions and briefed government officials and nongovernmental experts before and after his trips.

This is the fundamental value of such Track 2 meetings, which is to gather and impart information to governments when direct, official meetings between governments are difficult if not impossible to convene. One of the more interesting elements of the book is Hecker’s interactions with Chinese nuclear weapons scientists on the margins of those North Korea trips; it clearly must have been invaluable to compare notes with foreign scientists who likely had close connections to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Overall, the reader cannot fail to be impressed by Hecker’s devotion long after retirement to public service.

For consumers of policy memoirs, Hinge Points may seem disarmingly candid. Referring to the chief U.S. demand of North Korea, Hecker suggests at one point that “no one quite knew what ‘denuclearization’ even meant.” Unfortunately, this is probably still true today, despite the reams of official papers devoted to denuclearization road maps.

Unlike other physical scientists who have turned their hands to policy, Hecker understands the complexities without trying to reduce them to simple solutions. His frustration at the lack of progress with North Korea is palpable and a refreshing contrast to the tired cynicism of experts in Washington who believe that Pyongyang is a hopeless case yet refuse to adopt different approaches. One can only hope Hecker has another chance to visit North Korea to brighten the prospects for diplomacy.

Nuclear expert Sharon Squassoni is a research professor at The George Washington University and co-chair of the Science and Security Board and ex officio member of the Governing Board at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Nuclear physicist Siegfried S. Hecker argues that there were at least six hinge points in the last 20 years when outcomes with North Korea could have been vastly different if different choices had been made.

June 2023 Book of Note

June 2023

Forbidden: Receiving Pope Francis’s Condemnation of Nuclear Weapons
By Drew Christiansen, SJ, and Carole Sargent
Georgetown University Press
February 2023

“Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security,” warned Pope Francis during a conference at the Vatican in November 2017.

  This edited volume presents more than 30 essays from moral theologians, defense analysts, conflict transformation and peace studies scholars, and nuclear arms control experts on how to secure nuclear disarmament, as advocated for by the pope.

The book is a companion to the 2020 volume, A World Free from Nuclear Weapons: The Vatican Conference on Disarmament, by the same authors. The previous book laid the necessary groundwork for the 2023 volume by making the case against developing, possessing, and deploying nuclear weapon systems.

The new collection of essays focuses instead on the necessary strategies to achieve a nuclear-free world. The writers cover a wide variety of disarmament-related topics, including nuclear deterrence, international law, just war theory, nuclear history and disarmament education, humanitarian issues, the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, and the role of lay Catholic movements.

“This essential collection prepares military professionals, policymakers, everyday citizens, and the pastoral workers who guide them, to make decisions that will lead us to disarmament,” the authors assert.

Forbidden: Receiving Pope Francis’s Condemnation of Nuclear Weapons
By Drew Christiansen, SJ, and Carole Sargent
Georgetown University Press
February 2023

CWC Review Conference Fails to Achieve Consensus

June 2023
By Mina Rozei

States-parties to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) failed to agree on a joint outcome document at the conclusion of their fifth treaty review conference May 15-19 in The Hague.

Russia and Syria blocked consensus at the fifth review conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention on May 15-19 because they objected to any mention of Syria’s well-documented chemical weapons use. (Photo courtesy of OPCW)After an opening round of general statements and consultations and more than two days of closed-door debate in the committee of the whole, Russia and Syria blocked adoption of the draft outcome document because they objected to any mention of Syria’s well-documented chemical weapons use. Lacking consensus, the conference ended with a chairman’s report that summarized the week’s proceedings.

Henk Cor van der Kwast of The Netherlands, conference chair, attributed the lack of consensus to a “lack of time” because member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) allowed only one week for the conference.

In a May 20 statement, the U.S. State Department said Russia “repeatedly obstructed these efforts to negotiate in good faith throughout the process and prevented consensus on a final outcome document despite the majority of the issues receiving broad support.” It also noted that “more than 70 delegations, including the United States, joined a statement pledging to advance a positive agenda for the OPCW.”

In January 2023, the OPCW's Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded that there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that the Syrian military dropped two yellow chlorine gas cylinders on two apartment buildings in Douma, Syria, in 2018, killing 43 people and injuring many more. Russia and Syria have claimed that this attack and others attributed to Syria were staged by Syrian opposition forces.

In 2013, following a large-scale attack by Syrian forces on the outskirts of Damascus against rebel-held positions, Syria was pressured to join the CWC, declare its chemical weapons arsenal, and accept a plan developed by Russia, the United States, OPCW, and United Nations to remove and destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons and production capabilities. Since then, the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad has denied OPCW staff access to inspect its chemical weapons stockpile to verify the completion of the process and the accuracy of its declaration. (See ACT, March 2023.)

Held 25 years after the CWC’s entry into force, the review conference underscored the widespread global support for the treaty and the successful elimination of most of the declared chemical weapons stockpiles once possessed by its states-parties. The United States reaffirmed that it is still on track to complete the destruction of the last remnants of its once vast chemical weapons stockpile before a Sept. 30 deadline.

But the conference also underscored how geopolitical tensions between Russia and many other states are straining the CWC regime. In a statement to the conference, the head of the Russian delegation, Kirill Lysogorskiy, asserted that the 2018 decision authorizing the OPCW Technical Secretariat to identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria is “destroying the integrity of the CWC and the credibility of the organization.” He insisted that it “goes beyond the organization’s mandate and encroaches onto the exclusive competence of the UN Security Council.”

Lysogorskiy also reiterated Russia’s rejection of investigations that show that its security forces were responsible for poisoning Kremlin political opponents with banned chemical agents.

A new theme at this conference was the opaque process by which nongovernmental organizations are accepted or rejected for participation at OPCW meetings. There was strong civil society participation in the open sessions, and nongovernmental representatives were allowed to deliver topical presentations to the plenary. But several organizations with relevant expertise and standing were rejected without explanation by the general committee of the OPCW that handles accreditation, raising questions of possible political bias.

Despite the inability to achieve consensus on a final outcome document, OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias emphasized in his closing remarks that the “common ground that was found and national documents that were produced will provide strategic guidance for the tasks that the OPCW will carry out in the future.”


Russia and Syria blocked adoption of the draft outcome document because they objected to any mention of Syria’s well-documented chemical weapons use.  


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