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Arms Control Today

The Revolution That Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control, and the Cold War

October 2021

Nuclear Revolution Theory Survives Attack

The Revolution That Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control,
and the Cold War

By Brendan Rittenhouse Green
(Cambridge University Press, 2020)
265 pages

Reviewed by George Perkovich

The title gives away the ambition and, ultimately, the shortcoming of this book. Brendan Rittenhouse Green argues that the “nuclear revolution” theory posed by Robert Jervis, Kenneth Waltz, Charles Glaser, and others was and is wrong. This bold claim is sure to draw attention, but Green’s project depends on a straw-man version of the nuclear revolution theory. More regrettably, the theoretical debate running through the book diverts readers from the revealing archival reportage of the sometimes surreal nuclear posture and arms control policy debates of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, from 1969 to 1979.

Green sketches the straw theory on Page 1. The theory of “the nuclear revolution, often referred to as Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD), he writes,

drains all of the competition out of the international system. With victory on the battlefield impossible, the military balance is stalemated: states can no longer be stronger than one another, or exploit their relative strength in international bargaining. Further nuclear capabilities are therefore useless, and the military incentives for arms races and wars disappear. Likewise, because the defender of the status quo holds the advantage in the balance of resolve, challenges to the international order are destined to fail and will not be launched. Peace should prevail between nuclear powers, the status quo should be entrenched, and the traditional motors of great power rivalry should run out of gas.

He continues, “The nuclear revolution’s logic would appear to brook no argument, at least not among rational men and women…. Nuclear stalemate appears as a kind of brute fact, one that produces a nearly irresistible force locking rational states into stable force postures.”

Jervis and Glasercan defend themselves, but it is difficult to imagine them saying the MAD theory removes all international competition. The evidence to the contrary appeared every night on the broadcast news: Vietnam, the 1973 Middle East war, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan. The theory simply said it would be insane for U.S. and Soviet leaders to attack each other’s homeland or that of treaty-protected allies. Nuclear competitors could be stronger than one another, but once they could guarantee massive nuclear retaliation to an adversary’s first strike, nuclear superiority should not be expected to give them a significant advantage in international bargaining or coercion. Challenges to the international order could come from many sources, including anti-colonial movements, political and technological revolutions, economic supply chain disruptions, and the rise of new powers.

Finally, the theory says nuclear competition should wane, not that it will. Regardless of how their rationality is assessed, people may still compete and seek advantage or dominance, including in nuclear forces. The nuclear revolution theory says they will not successfully escape from being deterred from initiating major aggression against an adversary with a survivable nuclear arsenal.

Green recognizes much of this. He acknowledges that “the Cold War blessedly ended without real political instability—a major war, crisis, or challenge to the status quo.” Oddly, he gives that fundamental conclusion second place, which enables him to say the nuclear revolution theory failed. He then offers his own theory to explain why “Washington consistently chose nuclear force postures characterized by military competition which seek to gain military advantages over rivals that could be converted into bargaining leverage in a crisis or time of peace,” instead of accepting the stability of the theory of MAD.

Green’s theory has two mechanisms, “the Delicate Nuclear Balance and Comparative Constitutional Fitness,” which together seek to “explain both the intense Cold War nuclear competition that occurred after nuclear stalemate was achieved and its bizarre juxtaposition against arms control talks.” He says the nuclear balance appeared delicate, rather than stable, because one side could imagine that itself or an adversary could find a new technology that would provide a significant advantage. A side with a perceived advantage could be emboldened to act aggressively rather than remain deterred. The worst-case analysis would have each side assume the other was seeking such advantage. That could create incentives to act preemptively before the balance of power got worse in the run-up to war or as war escalates. Conceivably, arms control could ameliorate these uncertainties and manage competition, but competitive urges and domestic political-economic interests created other rationales that precluded robust arms control, he argues.

Although Green acknowledges that “nuclear stalemate persisted throughout the Cold War, in spite of superpower attempts to undermine it,” he asserts that “effective peacetime competition can provide large political benefits, whether or not a state ever escapes nuclear stalemate.” Nuclear superiority or the perception of it “enhances general deterrence, diverts enemy resources, and can force important political adjustments in its grand strategy, while also bolstering alliance cohesion,” he writes.

Green scrupulously notes that the narrative and the theories he propounds focus on only two countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, in one decade, 1969–1979. Moreover, the driving challenge for the United States was the exceptional one of providing extended nuclear deterrence to allies. No other country does that. Yet, Green’s frequent use of the present tense and “states” as a general noun rather than specific proper nouns give a grander impression of his theory’s reach.

There are many things to say about all this. To start, the leverage that nuclear competition supposedly provides to change adversaries’ behavior is rather abstract. The declassified U.S. documents that fill Green’s narrative show Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter and their top advisers talking like theorists playing a game. Meanwhile, in the real world, the nuclear balance had almost no effect on the Vietnam peace negotiations and war; the 1973 Middle East war and subsequent Camp David negotiations; the contests in Angola, Ethiopia, and El Salvador; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Green mentions none of these real-world developments. Yet, if the nuclear balance were a meaningful bargaining tool, one would expect this could be demonstrated through real-world episodes.

Indeed, the omission of Nixon’s attempt to use nuclear superiority to make Moscow behave differently regarding Vietnam is particularly curious. As William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball documented in their important book Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War, in October 1969, Nixon, with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at his side, secretly ordered a worldwide alert of U.S. nuclear forces to scare Moscow into “persuading Hanoi to make the military and political concessions desired by Washington and Saigon at the negotiating table in Paris.”1 If ever there was an example of the competitive logic Green discusses, here it was. Yet, no mention occurs in the book. If Green had addressed it, he would have been forced to conclude that the nuclear balance and this alert did not affect the Soviet leadership in any way. Nixon’s belief that he would have had to appear crazy to make Soviet leaders believe the nuclear threat confirms the basic proposition of the nuclear revolution theory. Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann demonstrate the uselessness of nuclear weapons for compelling adversaries to change behavior in their important book Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy. Green does not refer to their work either.

Rationality—how to define it, contextualize it, and apply it to nuclear policymaking—shadows this book. The nuclear revolution theory depends on rationality in the sense that decision-makers are assumed to prefer stability over instability and want to avoid self-destructive war and allocate resources efficiently on socially beneficial projects. Yet, that grand strategic rationality does not necessarily motivate individuals, parties, and organizations at moments short of an actual decision to launch nuclear weapons.

The president of the United States and reportedly the president of Russia plus one or two military advisers would ultimately decide whether to launch their country’s nuclear weapons. Their decision-making would determine whether the rationality supposed in the nuclear revolution theory holds in practice. Below that level, subsidiary individuals and institutions use instrumental rationality to pursue various lower-level interests, such as contracts for military-industrial businesses, defense budgets for weapons labs and military services, jobs for congressional districts, and votes for members of Congress.

Green’s account of the domestic political-economic drivers of nuclear competition captures some of this when he writes that each state’s actions were “influenced by their different economies, political institutions, civil-military politics, ideology, and vulnerability to public opinion.” These attributes combine to determine a state’s “comparative constitutional fitness,” in the formulation Green borrows from Aaron Friedberg. Green, however, exaggerates the role of strategic logic in the policymaking process. As Scott Sagan has noted,2 Green misses how staff in the nuclear weapons command did not listen to or follow guidance in the period Green covers and later.

That should not be surprising. What military leaders and war-fighting organizations would voluntarily accept being deterred from seeking ways to defeat their adversaries? Their jobs and their professional identities are to be undeterred. What the nuclear revolution means is that they will not succeed when it comes to direct, large-scale conflict against adversaries with assured nuclear retaliatory forces, and political leaders should be able to recognize this. Military and clandestine operators may find ways to conduct covert operations in third countries. They may try information operations, subversion, cyberespionage, and perhaps sabotage. They will look for ways to conduct limited nuclear wars. Someone else will have to impose on them the restraints of the MAD theory.

Similarly, individuals and enterprises that design and build nuclear weapons systems rationally pursue a range of interests and purposes that may not be necessary for nuclear deterrence. These impulses help drive competition for nuclear superiority and countermeasures to the other side’s quest for the same. Siegfried Hecker, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997, tells the story about how, in the mid-1990s after the Cold War ended, he sometimes enlivened meetings with Russian counterparts by saying, “Throughout the Cold War, everyone thought we were competing with you—with Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70. It is true that the Soviet Union was our adversary, but for Los Alamos, the real enemy was Livermore [National Laboratory].” The room would break into laughter. One of the Russian leaders would typically reply, “It was the same with us. Chelyabinsk (or Arzamas) was our enemy.”3

The interests and forces that propel some actors toward an arms race led others to invent arms control, which is supposed to be an instrument of restraint against irrationality, wantonness, and suicidal violence. Yet, the same interests that drive individuals and institutions to compete against mutual deterrence drive them to compete through arms control by gaming the restraints and seeking the putative advantages of competition.

“MAD has no explanation for why Cold War arms control became the Seinfeld of great power politics: a wildly popular show about nothing,” Green writes in his clever style. His explanation is that Washington wanted technological competition to gain leverage over Moscow and impress allies and “was not well suited for negotiating arms control with the Soviet Union” because the ability of presidents to maneuver was weakened by congressional pressure against defense spending and for arms control.

For Green, that is why the United States “used arms control in a competitive fashion, aiming to channel the competition toward its qualitative strengths” while seeking to limit the number of weapons to compensate for tighter defense budgets. Green mentions, almost in passing, that the constitutional requirement for a supermajority in the Senate to ratify treaties also could complicate greater arms control progress.

The quip about Seinfeld obscures the fact that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, combined with successive treaties to limit and then reduce offensive missiles, helped avoid an even more wasteful strategic arms race. These measures stabilized the Cold War competition for 30 years and helped end it without a superpower war, the essential purposes of arms control.

The abstractness of the book’s academic theorizing glosses over both the macrolevel irrationality of nuclear arms racing and the perversity of the microlevel rationalities that drive participants. Washington’s approach to nuclear arms control is not very different from its approach to gun control. There is a core of voters fixated on being unrestrained, and many politicians who feel the issue is not worth losing votes over, even though the result is more murderous and expensive for the American people than gun control would probably be. Rich lobbying organizations such as the National Rifle Association gain outsized influence with congressional candidates. The routine threat of the filibuster to require 60 senatorial votes to move legislation enables a motivated minority to prevail. What might rationally be the best outcome for society as a whole is not so politically or economically good for the particular actors who combine to make policy, and they smartly mobilize to get their way.

When Green moves from explicating the archival record to arguing the superiority of his theories, it sometimes seems like he is trying to prove he is the smartest kid in the class. Important stuff gets lost in the process. For example, he quotes a passage from Jervis to set up a critique of the nuclear revolution theory: “[O]nce ‘both sides have second strike capability, crises should not be frequent…. [T]he knowledge that war would be suicide coupled with the bargaining advantage possessed by the side defending the status quo means that would[-]be expansionists should be loath to instigate confrontations.’” Green ends the quote there, but Jervis’s next line is, “Furthermore, [those crises] that occur usually should be in peripheral areas and be initiated, not by the superpowers themselves, but by local actors.”4 This omitted line describes a lot of what ensued in the real world and remains so challenging with extended deterrence.

Indeed, Jervis’ text holds up very well on rereading and is ultimately more instructive. For example, Jervis writes that he “would propose the hypothesis that American foreign policy toward the [Soviet Union] has more often suffered from the difficulty of making the Soviets believe its promises than from that of making them believe its threats.”5 For all of Green’s theorizing about bargaining, he never explores the importance of convincing the other side that one will make and keep positive promises to ease competition or pressure if the adversary changes its threatening behavior.

That omission could be relevant to future U.S. relations with China and North Korea. Nuclear balances may be delicate as Green emphasizes in the U.S.-Soviet case. Yet U.S. nuclear capabilities have eclipsed Chinese capabilities for decades, and the gap between U.S. and North Korean capabilities is also enormous. Even so, Washington is unable to compel either one to change its behavior, and it is deterred from attacking both. Is the basic theory of nuclear revolution wrong? It does not seem so. Nuclear revolution theory suggests, however, that the United States needs to be more equitable in what it proposes and accepts in arms control negotiations.

As long as major war between nuclear-armed states does not occur, the revolution has not failed. Instead, Green’s book describes the ultimately futile quest by Nixon, Kissinger, and others in Washington and Moscow to arms-race away from nuclear deterrence in search of useable nuclear superiority. That history is being repeated today. Were Green to widen his aperture and show how irrelevant the differences in the nuclear balance were to the successes and failures of the United States and Soviet Union, it would be a useful cautionary tale, more aptly called “The Counter-Revolution That Failed.” For, even if one believed that competing with the United States caused the Soviet Union to collapse, nuclear weapons still have not provided Washington or Moscow with bargaining leverage to change each other’s behavior today.


1. William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2015), p. 2.

2. Scott D. Sagan, “Nuclear Revelations About the Nuclear Revolution,” in Book Review Roundtable: The Revolution That Failed, June 14, 2021, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/book-review-roundtable-the-revolution-that-failed/.

3. Siegfried Hecker, email correspondence with author, September 8, 2021.

4. Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 35.

5. Ibid., pp. 58–59.

George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies, overseeing the Technology and International Affairs Program, and the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).

Scholar Brendan Rittenhouse Green takes on the iconic Cold War nuclear deterrence theory of mutually assured destruction.

Peter D. Zimmerman (1941–2021), Philip E. Coyle III (1934–2021)

October 2021

Peter D. Zimmerman (1941–2021)
By Edward Levine and Pierce Corden

The world of arms control lost a valued colleague on Aug. 27, when Peter D. Zimmerman died at the age of 80. He was inquisitive to the end, querying his doctors about how the devices they were using on him worked. (The same thing happened when fellow scientist and arms controller Phil Coyle died six days later. Intense curiosity about how the world works may be a hallmark of brilliant scientists.)

Pete was a scientist before he was an arms controller, but his upbringing may have prepared him to straddle both worlds. When he was 15, his father, who supervised nuclear weapons storage sites at Manzano Base, on the edge of Albuquerque, gave him a piece of metal and said that someday Pete would understand its significance. The fragment was from an unarmed MK-17 hydrogen bomb (having a yield greater than 10 megatons) that a B-36 bomber had just dropped by accident near Manzano. Nuclear dangers were in the air that Pete breathed, even though his father could not discuss them.

Pete studied at Stanford University and Lund University in Sweden, receiving his Ph.D. in nuclear/particle physics from Stanford in 1967. After postdoctoral work and adjunct positions at the University of California at Los Angeles, the German Electron Synchrotron, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, he joined the faculty at Louisiana State University (LSU) in 1974 and became a full professor 11 years later.

In the beginning, no one would have predicted where his nuclear physics work would lead, but then there were those visiting positions. In 1981, he was a research physicist and lecturer at the University of California at San Diego, working with Herbert York on test ban treaty options. In the summer of 1983, he was a visiting researcher at Princeton University, working with Frank von Hippel and Harold Feiveson on the relative utility of tactical nuclear weapons and proposed conventional substitutes.

By 1984, Pete was active in the Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society (APS). He was elected a fellow of the APS in 1990, and the APS gave him its Joseph A. Burton/Forum Award for physics in the public interest in 2004. Also in 1984, Pete became a William C. Foster Fellow at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and was awarded a second consecutive year after that. One of his responsibilities was to backstop the defense and space negotiations with the Soviet Union, and he became an adviser to the U.S. delegation to those talks. His curriculum vitae says that he “demonstrated that strategic defenses lead to an unstable deterrent relationship,” which may not have endeared him to the Reagan administration.

In 1986 he joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he co-edited a book, with Michael Krepon, on the national security implications of civilian remote sensing satellites. This led to teaching and research jobs involving remote sensing and arms control verification, including for a possible Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Contracts with the ACDA included work on what would become the “safeguards” that were proposed when the CTBT was submitted to the Senate for advice and consent and on how to harden nuclear weapons against a terrorist attack and to disarm terrorists’ nuclear weapons.

In 1999, Pete was appointed the ACDA science advisor. This position continued after the ACDA reverted to the State Department and included important work on the CTBT task force. At the beginning of 2001, however, the Clinton administration ended, and Pete was without a job.

Yet, Pete was rather entrepreneurial. Out of the blue, he suggested to Edward Levine, who was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member for disarmament and arms control issues for Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.), that the committee hire him as its chief scientist. The committee may never have had a real scientist, let alone a chief one, but Pete sold the idea and went on to prove that it was a good one.

The year 2001 was eventful. Senators sought to keep the new George W. Bush administration from doing away with Cooperative Threat Reduction and nonproliferation assistance programs. They had to guard against a move to have the Senate return the CTBT to the president so that he could “unsign” it. Then came September 11. Then came the anthrax attacks, which closed the main committee offices for weeks, forcing staffers to work cheek to jowl out of much smaller quarters in the Capitol.

So, what did Pete do? He called up a friend at LSU who specialized in anthrax, probably Martin Hugh-Jones, and gave the committee a direct line to the relevant academic expertise. As they gained knowledge in this area, staff members were able to talk more productively with additional experts about how to combat biological terrorism through improved public health and pathogen surveillance. Pete was the senior co-author of Biden’s Global Pathogens Surveillance Act of 2003, which was twice approved by the Senate. It died in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives because it was a Biden bill, but Pete’s work sensitized the future vice president and president to the importance of preparing for and averting pandemics.

Pete also led committee efforts to understand and combat the threat of nuclear or radiological terrorism, arranging very effective classified briefings and public hearings. His work alerted and educated members of the Senate and aided the committee’s bipartisan promotion of nonproliferation efforts in the executive branch. Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2003, and the Democrats, after keeping Pete on for a year, had to let him go.

So, what did Pete do? The entrepreneur got himself a professorship at King’s College London and led the Centre for Science and Security Studies, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Later, he was the physical science adviser to the Graham-Talent Commission to prevent weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. He also continued to do studies for U.S. agencies while managing to survive a series of life-threatening medical conditions.

Finally, in 2020, he felt better and joined a presidential campaign, becoming one of the policy volunteers who lent their expertise wherever it could be used. He enjoyed that immensely and was always up for a challenge. When one colleague proposed reviving the ACDA, Pete signed up to flesh out that idea and loved it.

As a scientist, Pete favored analytic conclusions over ideology. He was a fervent arms controller, but never supported complete nuclear disarmament, which he feared would lead to a revival of massive conventional wars. Although he was very sensitive to the dangers posed by nuclear power, he believed that it had to be part of any solution to the challenge of global warming.

Finally, Pete was a happy husband to his wife, Eva Zimmerman, and the proudest of proud papas to son Eric and daughter Rebecca. As one mourner remarked to Pete’s daughter at his funeral, “You may not know us, but we know everything about you!” His life was not always easy, but it was challenging, often fun, and truly a lifelong learning experience.

Pete made signal, important contributions to the fields of arms control and nonproliferation. He treated life as
a laboratory in which to learn and do good works. In his case, the experiment was a success.

Edward Levine is a retired professional staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (1976–1997) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1997–2011). Beginning in 1971, Pierce Corden worked at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, then as an office director at the State Department, focusing mainly on nuclear testing and United Nations issues. He retired in 2007 after 5 years as director of administration for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization's Provisional Technical Secretariat.


Philip E. Coyle III (1934–2021)
By Lisbeth Gronlund

Phil Coyle was a rare and magnificent bird.

He was one of the small handful of scientists who worked in the classified world of the Pentagon and weapons laboratories but also collaborated with those of us working on the outside to challenge U.S. policy on nuclear weapons and missile defense.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Phil’s involvement, which strengthened the analysis and recommendations made by members of the nuclear peace and security community and gave them credibility.

Phil was the consummate insider. He spent more than three decades working on nuclear weapons and related programs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, rising to associate director and deputy to the director of the lab by the time he left in 1993. He then spent seven years in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, serving as director of operational test and evaluation (OT&E), an internal watchdog that oversees the testing programs of major military systems.

A decade later, in 2010-2011, he had a year-long stint as associate director for national security and international affairs in President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was given a recess appointment because Obama believed that Phil’s work as director of the OT&E office would anger pro-missile defense senators and stand in the way of congressional approval.

Decades ago, I and several of my physics colleagues who were active in the anti-nuclear movement decided to leave academic physics and apply our technical backgrounds to assess and critique U.S. nuclear weapons programs. Every institution needs independent oversight and public accountability, but none more so than the Pentagon and the weapons labs. We only had access to unclassified information, but found we could use physics to understand and shed useful light on key military programs.

Our ability to do so benefited tremendously from talking to Phil and other insiders to fully understand the unclassified information and put it into context.

The Pentagon and the weapons labs frown on such interactions. A few years ago, I wrote a report critiquing the Obama administration’s plan for building new warheads. Three scientists working in the classified realm reviewed the report, but two of them did not want to be acknowledged by name. I thanked the third scientist, an academic who regularly consults for the weapons labs, in the acknowledgments. He later took part in a small, high-level meeting in the Pentagon. The first presenter put up their first slide, which was the cover page of my report, and said to him, “I see you’ve joined the dark side.” It was not a joke.

I do not know if Phil experienced this type of negative feedback, but he was knee deep in a culture that viewed outside critics as the dark side. When I first came to know Phil, he was heading the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) and was clearly deeply committed to getting the facts about the weapons systems he reviewed out to policymakers and the public. I think he viewed the arms control community as allies, not the enemy.

We quickly learned that any report that criticized a weapons program and was authored by scientists without a security clearance would be met with a fierce counterattack, usually not on the merits of the analysis but on the credibility of the authors. The Pentagon or the weapons labs and hostile members of Congress would simply dismiss an unfavorable report, saying the authors did not know what they were talking about because they did not have a security clearance.

Yet, if Phil or another scientist insider was a co-author, that kind of criticism simply evaporated. The Pentagon had to respond to the merits of the report. Hostile members of Congress had to take it seriously. Sympathetic members
of Congress could use it to ask the Pentagon and administration difficult questions and to request reports and studies. I was fortunate to co-author two reports with Phil.

It was during the Clinton administration that Phil was DOT&E, leading an office created in 1983 by Congress to prevent the kind of situation that occurred repeatedly during the Vietnam War when U.S. soldiers died because their weapons malfunctioned. Its mandate was to ensure the Pentagon adhered to a “fly before you buy” policy, meaning it would only purchase a weapons system once real-world operational testing, not just contractor computer graphics, demonstrated it would work as intended. The Pentagon also had to spell out the military requirements for these systems in advance so the test program would be appropriate and could not succumb to defense contractor lobbying or parochial interests and buy a new weapon that met only some of its requirements.

Phil, widely known as a straight shooter, was the ideal person to become DOT&E.

His work on the inside was invaluable to those of us on the outside fighting the U.S. plan to deploy the national missile defense system intended to defend against long-range nuclear-armed missiles. President Bill Clinton was slated to make a deployment decision in 2000 before leaving office.

The program had become much less ambitious since President Ronald Reagan launched the “Star Wars” program in 1983. The goal was now to defend against a handful of missiles launched by North Korea, rather than Reagan’s fantastical goal of defending against thousands of Soviet missiles. Yet, it was still nowhere close to meeting its objectives, and our technical analysis made the case that it never would.

The DOT&E annual reports to Congress, which must include an unclassified version, were invaluable. They laid out in gory detail the limitations of the test program and (politely) took the Pentagon to task for exaggerating the successes of the missile defense tests. Phil was not just a straight shooter, but an expert marksman.

On September 1, Clinton announced he would not begin deploying a national missile defense system, stating “I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology, and the operational effectiveness of the entire [national missile defense] system, to move forward to deployment.” It was clear he had received the message from Phil and the OT&E office loud and clear.

Under the George W. Bush administration, the Pentagon simply ignored the ongoing DOT&E criticisms of the program. It dropped the fly-before-you-buy requirement, essentially arguing the system was so important to national security that there was not time to make sure it worked properly. It also dropped all the requirements for the system. The program was now “capabilities driven,” meaning advocates would take what they could get. The Bush administration began deployment in 2002.

After stepping down as DOT&E, Phil became an integral member of our community. His next job was senior advisor to the president of the Center for Defense Information, a nongovernmental organization working on military security issues.

Later, he joined the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation as a senior science fellow. He served on the boards of directors of the Center and the Arms Control Association.

He continued to be a thorn in the side of missile defense advocates or, perhaps more accurately, an entire thorn bush. He understood the issues in detail and knew when the Pentagon was exaggerating or downright lying. He was unfailingly polite but direct.

The icing on the cake was that Phil was such a lovely person and interacting with him was such a pleasure. It was oddly charming that he used a flip phone and the email address of his wife, Martha Krebs, a physicist. The couple have four children.

Weapons lab directors, his government colleagues, and people working at peace and security organizations variously described him as a “man of high integrity” and a “very kind, supportive, and upbeat leader” who was “peaceful in his mannerisms and kind in his demeanor” and “committed to facts, good judgment, and moving a situation forward.” One admirer noted, “He asked great questions in a way that didn't threaten people, but let them know he understood the arguments and identified the weaknesses.”

The U.S. peace and arms control community has suffered a great loss.

Lisbeth Gronlund is a research affiliate of the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Peter D. Zimmerman (1941–2021), Philip E. Coyle III (1934–2021)

U.S., UK Pledge Nuclear Submarines for Australia

October 2021
By Julia Masterson

Australia could become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to field a nuclear-powered submarine as part of a new trilateral security partnership with the United States and United Kingdom known as AUKUS. The initiative was unveiled at a joint virtual press conference held Sept. 15.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the latter arrives at the Pentagon on September 22. The meeting took place a week after the two countries and the United Kingdom announced the  AUKUS security pact to help Australia develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines and pursue other military cooperation.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) All three nations emphasized that Australia will not acquire nuclear weapons and that they will uphold their commitment to global nonproliferation standards. Even so, the decision by the United States and the UK to equip Australia with nuclear submarines has heightened proliferation concerns because the U.S. and UK submarines are powered by on-board reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU).

The objective of the new trilateral alliance is to ensure “peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific [region] over the long term,” U.S. President Joe Biden said during the joint appearance unveiling the initiative alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on video monitors.

“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it will evolve because the future of each of our nations, and indeed the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific, enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” Biden added.

The United States has shared nuclear submarine propulsion technology only with the UK, a product of a series of Cold War agreements aimed to counter Soviet influence in Europe.

The UK Royal Navy operates three nuclear-powered submarine systems: the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine and the Astute- and Trafalgar-class attack submarines. Johnson said the AUKUS partnership will provide “a new opportunity to reinforce Britain’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, strengthening our national expertise.”

Morrison said that Australia will work with Washington and London over the next 18 months “to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve” a conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine fleet. He also said that the submarines will be constructed “in Australia in close cooperation” with the UK and the United States. The submarines will reportedly be finished in time to be fielded in the 2040s. Early reports suggest Australia may lease U.S. or UK nuclear-powered submarines in the meantime, but the details remain unclear.

At a press conference in Canberra on Sept. 16, Morrison noted that “[n]ext-generation nuclear-powered submarines will use reactors that do not need refueling during the life of the boat. A civil nuclear power capability here in Australia is not required to pursue this new capability.”

A senior Biden administration official appeared to confirm on Sept. 20 that the vessels will be powered with HEU, as UK and U.S. submarines are, when they commented on Australia’s fitness for “stewardship of the HEU.” It remains unclear who would supply Australia with the fissile material necessary to fuel the submarines or whether the nuclear-powered submarines might be provided through a leasing arrangement.

Another unknown is whether the submarine design will be based on existing U.S. or UK attack submarines or an entirely new design. One of the reasons that Australia may lease U.S. or UK vessels in the near term is to “provide opportunities for us to train our sailors, [to] provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton told reporters Sept. 19, suggesting the new submarines may share a similar design.

The AUKUS initiative is not limited to the new submarine project. It will also facilitate the sharing of information in a number of technological areas, including artificial intelligence, underwater systems, and quantum, cyber-, and long-range strike capabilities. Morrison said Australia will also enhance its long-range strike capabilities through the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles.

The three leaders were careful not to attribute the new trilateral security initiative as a response to concerns about expanding Chinese military capabilities. In February, as part of a growing U.S. emphasis on prioritizing competition with Beijing, Biden announced a new Defense Department task force charged with assessing U.S. military strategy toward China.

Nevertheless, Chinese officials were quick to condemn the AUKUS initiative. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Sept. 16 that “the nuclear submarine cooperation between the U.S., UK, and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international nonproliferation efforts.”

China also expressed concerns about the proliferation risks posed by the initiative. Lijian warned that “the international community, including Australia’s neighboring countries, has full reason to question whether Australia is serious about fulfilling its nuclear nonproliferation commitments.”

Australian, UK, and U.S. officials have endeavored to assure the international community that the initiative does not pose a heightened proliferation risk. A senior Biden administration official said on Sept. 15 that “Australia, again, does not seek and will not seek nuclear weapons. This is about nuclear-powered submarines.” But they noted the novelty of the circumstance, adding, “[T]his is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects.”

Aidan Liddle, the UK ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, told Arms Control Today in an email Sept. 21 that “[a]ll three parties involved are absolutely committed to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] and have a long track record of working to uphold and strengthen the global counter-proliferation regime.”

“We have spoken to the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Director[-]General about this, and we will keep in close touch with the IAEA as we investigate the safeguards implications of the programme during the next phase of work,” said Liddle. He added, “[W]e will ensure that we are fulfilling our international obligations and giving absolute confidence that no HEU will be diverted for weapons purposes.”

Most nonproliferation experts, however, say the concern is not necessarily with Australia’s intentions but the precedent that the nuclear-powered submarine-sharing scheme would set. Although Australia’s new submarines would be conventionally armed, they clearly would be deployed for military use and will reportedly utilize HEU, which can also be used for nuclear weapons.

Washington has reached nuclear cooperation agreements for the exchange and transfer of civil nuclear material, equipment, and technology for peaceful purposes with many non-nuclear-weapon states. But military-relevant naval nuclear technology transfers are not covered under these agreements, including the U.S.-Australian agreement for nuclear cooperation that was signed in 2010.

In a Sept. 21 letter to the editor published in The New York Times, Rose Gottemoeller, former U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, criticized the proposal to share HEU-fueled submarines with Australia. The proposal, she wrote, “has blown apart 60 years of U.S. policy” designed to minimize HEU use. “Such uranium makes nuclear bombs, and we never wanted it in the hands of nonnuclear-weapon states, no matter how squeaky clean,” she said.

As recently as May 2021, the UK and United States declared that they wanted to “reinvigorate” efforts to minimize the use of HEU, according to the official statement laying out the goals for the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. (See ACT, June 2021.) Reducing the production and use of HEU “enjoys broad support but requires more solid political support,” the statement said.

Senior Biden administration officials have called the decision concerning Australia “a one-off,” implying that similar arrangements would not be made with other U.S. allies.

Despite support for the new initiative among the three capitals, the AUKUS partnership risks undermining U.S. and UK relations with allies, particularly France. Australia signed on to the nuclear submarine acquisition scheme after abandoning a $66 billion deal with France for the construction of 12 conventionally powered submarines. Negotiations to establish the AUKUS initiative took place in secret for six months, and the French were not privy to those discussions.

In her Sept. 21 letter to the editor, Gottemoeller criticized the submarine deal’s lack of “strategic imagination” and noted that “what we needed was a three-cornered billiard shot—pivot to Asia, yes, but keep our European allies on board.”

“I suggest bringing the French to the table,” Gottemoeller, who was also NATO’s deputy secretary-general from 2016 until 2019, concluded. The French utilize low-enriched fuel for their naval propulsion, which, if shared with Australia, would pose a dramatically lower proliferation risk than HEU, she wrote.

Following the AUKUS announcement, Paris recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain and Defense Minister Florence Parley said in a joint statement that “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”

Paris also cancelled a French-UK defense minister’s summit scheduled for the week of Sept. 20.

The controversial deal is designed to counter a more assertive China but many worry it could also weaken nonproliferation norms.

Iran Edges Toward Resuming Nuclear Talks

October 2021
By Julia Masterson

Iran’s new administration appears to be inching toward resuming multilateral negotiations on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other major countries, but exactly when that might happen remains an open question. The sixth round of talks concluded on June 20, and negotiations have since remained stalled.

During his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 22, President Joe Biden said that although the United States is "prepared to return to full compliance [with the 2015 nuclear deal] if Iran does the same,” it also “remains committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” (Photo by Eduardo Munoz/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Although Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi used his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21 to slam the United States for the sanctions imposed on his country, he remained open to negotiations on the nuclear accord. Raisi made clear that Iranians “don’t trust the promises made by the U.S. government,” but said Tehran considers talks useful if they result in the lifting of all sanctions.

The same day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying that talks with world powers over reviving the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would resume in a few weeks, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported, according to Reuters.

"Every meeting requires prior coordination and the preparation of an agenda. As previously emphasized, the Vienna talks will resume soon and over the next few weeks," he reportedly said.

U.S. President Joe Biden also used the UN meeting to lay down markers. “We are prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same,” he said in his first speech to world leaders. But Biden underscored that the United States “remains committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Early posturing by Raisi and his cabinet had cast doubt on the likelihood of the near-term resumption of talks.

The new Iranian government set out to clarify Tehran’s position on negotiations to restore the deal after Raisi was inaugurated Aug. 5. Although pledging a commitment to the deal, the new president said he would pursue “smart engagement” to lift U.S. and international sanctions on Iran, suggesting his administration may take a more hard-line approach. (See ACT, September 2021.)

Officials in Raisi’s government and that of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, have long maintained that a restoration of the JCPOA should begin with the lifting of U.S. sanctions, which were reimposed after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018. Washington is also interested in returning to the JCPOA but in mutual exchange for Iran’s return to compliance with its obligations under the accord.

Tehran has cautioned the other parties to the deal, and specifically the United States, against pushing for a prompt return to talks. Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said during an Aug. 31 interview that a two- or three-month process will be necessary for the Raisi government to prepare for negotiations.

Although change is underway in Tehran, including the appointment of Ali Bagheri Kani as deputy foreign minister, there appears to be some continuity from the Rouhani administration. Abbas Aragchi, the former deputy foreign minister who was also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, will stay on as an advisor to JCPOA talks, the Raisi administration confirmed Sept. 14. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Khatibzadeh, announced on Sept. 19 that further changes to Iran’s negotiating team are being considered but have not been finalized.

In a Sept. 4 interview, Raisi underscored that Iran is interested in negotiations but not with the pressure imposed by the United States and the European parties to the deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). But he confirmed Iran is committed to resuming talks and will not step back further from diplomacy.

Khatibzadeh said on Sept. 13 that Tehran will resume talks in the near future. Amid speculation that Amirabdollahian could meet with his foreign minister counterparts at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September, Khatibzadeh said that no decision has been made but that the Iranian minister will meet with each of the foreign ministers separately and on a bilateral basis.

Other parties to the JCPOA have pushed back on Amirabdollahian’s proposal. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Sept. 9 that “two or three months is a time frame that is much too long for us.” At a Sept. 15 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, France, Germany, and the UK delivered a statement urging Iran to “constructively reengage in negotiations without further delay.” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, in a Sept. 17 tweet similarly lamented that talks must promptly resume.

Although all parties to the JCPOA and the United States appear committed to restoring the deal, the window for talks may not stay open indefinitely. Iran has accelerated steps to breach JCPOA limits in accordance with its December 2020 nuclear law, including by boosting its enrichment of 20 percent uranium-235 and producing uranium metal. These provocative moves have shortened the one-year breakout window, or the time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, that was envisioned by the 2015 accord.

In their statement to the IAEA board, the European parties noted that “[c]ollectively, these steps present a pressing nuclear proliferation risk, have irreversible consequences for Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and undermine the non-proliferation benefits of the JCPOA.”

“It is particularly regrettable that Iran has deepened its systematic violations of the JCPOA at a time when all JCPOA participants and the United States are engaged in substantive discussions, with the objective of finding a diplomatic solution to restore the JCPOA,” they said.

Asked about a deadline for negotiations to resume, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sept. 9, “I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the [JCPOA] does not reproduce the benefits that the agreement achieved,” likely referring to the original one-year breakout window. He added, “[W]e’ve been very clear that the ability to rejoin the JCPOA…return to mutual compliance, is not indefinite.”

Meanwhile, Israeli officials said they have accelerated military planning against Iran's nuclear program.

Laying markers at the UN General Assembly, the U.S., and Iranian leaders reaffirmed interest in restoring the Iran nuclear deal but negotiations remain stalled.

Missile Defense Review Begins

October 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Biden administration has kicked off a review of U.S. missile defense policy, according to the Defense Department.

This intercontinental ballistic missile was the target for a test of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system from the U.S. Army's Reagan test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on May 2017. (Photo by U.S. Department of Defense)The review comes as the United States pursues new programs to defend the homeland against limited long-range ballistic missile attacks and Russia continues to insist that new arms control talks address U.S. missile defenses.

“The Missile Defense Review is currently underway,” Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Defense Department spokesman, told Arms Control Today on Aug. 13. “The review started in late June, and it will be finalized in conjunction with the National Defense Strategy early next year.”

The Trump administration’s review, published in January 2019, proposed a significant expansion of the role and scope of U.S. missile defenses. (See ACT, March 2019.) But it did not result in any immediate changes to U.S. defense deployments.

As a senator during the George W. Bush administration, Biden raised concerns about the administration’s disdain for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and plans to accelerate the fielding of an initial capability to defend the United States against long-range ballistic missile attacks.

“Are we really prepared to raise the starting gun in a new arms race in a potentially dangerous world?” he said in a speech on Sept. 10, 2001. “Because make no mistake about it, folks, if we deploy a missile defense system that is being contemplated, we could do just that.”

But Biden was largely silent on his views on missile defense during the 2020 presidential campaign.

His administration’s first budget request, released in May, would continue the Trump administration’s plans for missile defense. (See ACT, July/August 2021.)

The most significant early decision made by the Biden administration on missile defense was to continue with plans to build a new interceptor to counter long-range ballistic missile attacks. (See ACT, June 2021.)

The missile, known as the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI), emerged during the Trump administration after the Pentagon in 2019 cancelled the program to design an upgraded kill vehicle, the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, for the already existing 44 interceptors that are part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system.

An independent Defense Department cost estimate published in April put the estimated cost of the interceptor at $18 billion over its lifetime.

The department plans to supplement the existing 44 ground-based interceptors with 20 NGIs beginning not later than 2028 to bring the fleet total to 64. In the meantime, the Biden administration’s budget request would continue to fund a service life extension program for the existing interceptors to keep them viable until the NGI is fielded.

Although the Missile Defense Review is certain to endorse development of the NGI, it remains to be seen whether the administration will bless, beyond this year, plans to supplement U.S. homeland missile defenses by modifying existing systems to defend against longer-range threats.

The Missile Defense Agency is in the early stages of developing a layered homeland missile defense approach to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to intercept limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats.

Congress has been skeptical of the plans, and the Government Accountability Office has raised technical concerns.

The Pentagon conducted a successful first intercept test of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 Block IIA missile against an ICBM target last November. (See ACT, December 2020.) Among the decisions the Biden administration will need to make is whether to pursue more such tests of the interceptor.

Other key programmatic issues likely to be considered in the review include the future of U.S. efforts to build a defense against hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles and how best to augment the defense of Guam.

The Missile Defense Review will also address several policy issues, including the role of missile defenses in U.S. security policy and how to deal with defenses in arms control talks.

Traditionally, the United States has pursued long-range missile defenses to defend against a possible limited nuclear ICBM attack from North Korea or, in the future, Iran and relied on nuclear deterrence to defend against the larger, more sophisticated Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals.

The Trump administration’s review endorsed this declaratory approach, although President Donald Trump said the goal of U.S. missile defenses is to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

Whether to accept negotiated limits on U.S. missile defenses is likely to be among the most contentious issues considered in the review and as part of broader policy development conversations within the administration about arms control diplomacy with Russia and possibly China.

Since the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, long-standing U.S. policy has been to reject negotiated constraints on the development and deployment of U.S. missile defenses.

Amid the resumption of a strategic stability dialogue with Russia, the administration has expressed its desire to bring additional types of Russian nuclear weapons into the arms control process, namely so-called tactical nuclear warheads, and bring China into the arms control process for the first time. (See ACT, September 2021.) But it has not commented on whether it would be open to discussing missile defense in formal arms control talks and, if so, to what extent.

Russia, meanwhile, wants to focus on developing “a new security equation” that addresses all nuclear and non-nuclear, offensive and defensive weapons that affect strategic stability. That would include U.S. missile defense systems.


Among other issues, the Biden administration’s review will consider whether missile defense should be part of arms control negotiations with Russia.

China, Pakistan Press BWC on New Guidelines

October 2021
By Shannon Bugos

China and Pakistan in September encouraged more than 180 countries to adopt a set of guidelines designed to guard against the development and proliferation of biological weapons.

Li Song, Chinese ambassador for disarmament, addresses a special session of the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva on Sept. 8. China and Pakistan encouraged more than 180 countries to adopt new guidelines designed to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons. (Photo by Chinese UN Mission)“Broad acceptance of responsible biological research and development of corresponding codes of conduct will bring out the full potentials and benefits of research in this field and help to prevent its misuse or abuse,” said Li Song, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations and disarmament ambassador, in a Sept. 3 statement.

Li officially introduced “The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists” during a Sept. 2 meeting of experts convened under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). China and Pakistan aim to have “all stakeholders” endorse the guidelines during the BWC’s ninth review conference and commit to “voluntarily incorporat[ing] elements from the guidelines in their practices, protocols, and regulations.” The review conference was initially scheduled to begin in November, but was pushed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Chinese side has submitted the guidelines to the BWC review conference for endorsement,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Sept. 6. “The conclusion of the Tianjin Guidelines demonstrates that, in the face of global issues, effective solutions can be found as long as we uphold the spirit of inclusiveness, pragmatism, science, and cooperation.”

Entered into force in 1975, the BWC is a legally binding, multilateral treaty that prohibits the development, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, production, and use of biological and toxin weapons and currently has 183 states-parties.

The Tianjin Guidelines emerged from a consolidated effort that included the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Tianjin University, and the InterAcademy Partnership (a network of 140 national regional, and global science academies, including the National Academy of Sciences) with support from the U.S. State Department and the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The initiative launched in January 2021 and held several meetings during the spring. The partnership formally endorsed the guidelines July 8.

“The ultimate aim is to prevent misuse of bioscience research without hindering beneficial outcomes, in accordance with the articles and norms” of the BWC, according to the introduction to the guidelines.

The State Department said in a Sept. 17 statement to Arms Control Today that it viewed the endorsement of the guidelines by the partnership “as an excellent first step to encouraging scientific institutions from all across the globe to be aware of and to incorporate the elements embodied in the biosecurity guidelines and in the Biological Weapons Convention into their own codes as appropriate.” The department did not comment on China’s official introduction of the guidelines at the BWC meeting.

The 10 guidelines recommend that scientists consider potential biosecurity concerns at all stages of scientific research, strike a balance when disseminating research findings between maximizing benefits and minimizing harm, and actively promote public understanding and interest in biological science and technology, including the potential benefits and risks.

“Scientific institutions, including research, funding, and regulatory bodies, should be aware of the potential for misuse of bioscience research, and ensure that expertise, equipment, and facilities are not used for illegal, harmful, or malicious purposes at any stage of bioscience work,” the guidelines state. “They should establish appropriate mechanisms and processes to monitor, assess, and mitigate potential vulnerabilities and risks in scientific activities and dissemination.”

The move by China and Pakistan to secure an official endorsement of the Tianjin Guidelines by BWC states-parties came one week after the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified summary of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We judge the virus was not developed as a biological weapon,” said the Aug. 27 report. The intelligence agencies remain divided over the most likely origin of the coronavirus, whether by natural exposure to an infected animal or a laboratory-associated incident.

In April, the State Department’s annual arms control compliance report said that Beijing has “engaged in activities that raise concerns with regard to its obligations” under the BWC. “The United States has compliance concerns with respect to Chinese military medical institutions’ toxin research and development because of the dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat,” the report concluded. Further information, however, remained classified.

In what could be an important move, the two states urged adoption of guidelines aimed at guarding against the development and proliferation of biological weapons.

On CTBT Anniversary, UN Members Call for Action

October 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Member states of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) marked the 25th anniversary of the opening for signature of the treaty with a series of events last month at the United Nations, culminating in a special Security Council meeting on Sept. 27 convened by Ireland, which holds one of the rotating seats on the 12-member council.

Maggie Wanyaga of Kenya, a representative of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty Organization Youth Group, addressed a UN Security Council meeting that discussed the CTBT on Sept. 27. The youth group is part of an effort to involve civil society in supporting the work of the CTBTO and the treaty. (UN TV)At the Security Council meeting, senior officials representing council members, including the six states that have conducted nuclear test explosions, spoke. The new head of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization (CTBTO), Robert Floyd; the head of the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs; and a civil society representative from Kenya also addressed the Council.

In a departure from the Trump administration, the U.S. envoy’s statement reaffirmed that the United States supports the CTBT and “is committed to achieving its entry into force.” China’s representative also reiterated Beijing’s support for the treaty. Both states have signed the CTBT but failed to ratify. Neither country’s representative indicated when they might seek to complete the ratification process.

India’s envoy told the council that his country “supports the realization of a nuclear weapons free world through a step for step process” and that India participated in the CTBT negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) but could not join the treaty “as it did not address our concerns.” He noted that India will continue to observe a nuclear testing moratorium and is committed to working on disarmament in the CD.

One hundred and eighty-five states have signed the CTBT and 170 have ratified it. Eight key states, including the United States and China and India, must still ratify the treaty for it to formally enter into force.

Since the tit-for-tat Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998, all states except North Korea have respected the strong de facto international norm created by the CTBT and upheld moratoriums on nuclear weapons testing. Since 2017, even North Korea has halted nuclear testing. The Security Council has condemned each of the handful of nuclear tests conducted since the CTBT’s opening for signature and imposed sanctions in each case.

The last time the Security Council addressed the CTBT issue was on Sept. 22, 2016, when it marked the treaty’s 20th anniversary with the adoption of Resolution 2310. In the resolution, the council stressed the “vital importance and urgency” of achieving the early entry into force of the treaty and urged all states to sign and ratify it. The council also recognized a joint statement from its permanent five members not to take any action that would “defeat the object or purpose of the treaty,” which is to halt “any nuclear weapon test explosion and any other nuclear test explosion.”

Due to opposition from France, however, this year’s special Security Council session did not result in a joint statement, according to multiple diplomatic sources.

Days earlier on Sept. 23 and 24, CTBT member states met for the Conference on Facilitating Entry Into Force of the CTBT, a meeting held every other year to “to promote cooperation aimed at promoting further signatures and ratifications.”

In a video address to the conference, Bonnie Jenkins, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, said “an in-force CTBT is good for the security of the United States, and it is good for the security of all states.”

“I want to make clear,” Jenkins said, “the United States supports the CTBT and is committed to work to achieve its entry into force. This is no easy task. It is important to remember that no one country can make entry into force happen on its own. Within the United States, we recognize that securing the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate to ratification will require deliberate outreach and education to ensure that the benefits of an in-force CTBT are clearly understood by all.”

On Sept. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement on social media that said: “Countries that are yet to join the treaty need to show political will. The agreement’s entry into force would serve the interests of the whole global community of nations.”

At the insistence of states including the China and the United Kingdom, the CTBT text includes an unorthodox entry into force section, which is spelled out in Article XIV, and is designed to require that India and other nuclear weapons-capable states all join the treaty before it enters into force. Article XIV requires ratification by 44 named states, members of the Conference on Disarmament that also appear in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) list of states with nuclear power reactors. Two of the eight key holdout states, China and the United States, have signed the treaty and have refrained from testing, but they have not yet ratified and have not indicated when they will do so.

Article XIV also established the option for states-parties to the treaty to convene conferences to exhort holdout states to sign and ratify. Germany and Algeria co-chaired the Sept. 27 conference, which was the 12th such conference since the treaty was concluded, and then reported on their efforts to promote the treaty. Italy and South Africa will serve as co-chairs for the coming year.

UN member states also reaffirmed support for an end to nuclear testing at another high-level meeting at UN headquarters on Sept. 8. That conference marked the closure of the former Soviet Union’s former Semipalatinsk test site in eastern Kazakhstan. Thirty years ago, on August 29, 1991, the site was officially shut down after more than 450 nuclear detonations. The UN now recognizes the date as International Day Against Nuclear Tests.

Magzhan Ilyassov, Kazakhstan’s UN ambassador, speaking to UN News said, “For us, the 29th of August is not a day in the calendar. It is a reminder about how traumatic nuclear tests can be for humankind because in Kazakhstan alone, 1.5 million people still suffer, and will unfortunately suffer for future generations, from genetic diseases, cancer, leukemia, which were caused by exposure to nuclear tests.”

In a Sept. 30 statement, UN Secretary General António Guterres said, “I once again urge those states that have not yet ratified the treaty to do so without delay. Eight states whose ratifications are necessary for the treaty to enter into force have a special responsibility. At the same time, all states should maintain or implement moratoria on nuclear explosions. The International Day Against Nuclear Tests is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to outlaw all nuclear tests, by anyone, anywhere. There is no excuse to delay achieving this goal.”

U.S. President Joe Biden also recognized the day. “On behalf of the United States of America, I want to extend my best wishes to the people of Kazakhstan as you mark three decades since the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site on Aug. 29,” he wrote in a Sept. 1 letter to Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. “The United States remains committed to its close partnership with Kazakhstan, including continued cooperation with your government to secure and remediate the former test site,” Biden wrote.

For CTBT advocates, the Biden administration’s rhetorical support for the treaty is a welcome shift from the policy of the Trump administration, which dismissed the value of the treaty even as it continued to support its global verification system. As recently as last year, some Trump officials reportedly discussed the idea of resuming U.S. testing to influence Chinese and Russian behavior in future arms control talks. Congress responded by prohibiting the use of funds for nuclear test explosions for one year.

The Biden administration is not expected to try to advance support for the CTBT in the U.S. Senate, which is currently divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans and requires 67 votes to provide advice and consent for ratification.

The 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty propelled nuclear-weapon states to halt nuclear weapons testing, but never formally entered into force. Some UN members are trying to motivate holdout states to ratify the agreement.

North Korea Rachets Up Nuclear, Missile Activities

October 2021
By Julia Masterson

North Korea may have restarted its five-megawatt reactor, which it has historically used to produce plutonium to support its nuclear weapons program, according to a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Whether it be nuclear weapons or missiles, North Korea is continuing to expand its military capabilities and refusing entreaties from the United States to “meet without conditions.” (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)Although the reactor, located at the Yongbyon complex, was inoperative from December 2018 until July 2021, the discharge of cooling water from the reactor suggests it may now be operational, the report, issued Aug. 27, said.

The IAEA does not have an on-site presence in North Korea, but it reports annually on the country’s nuclear activities using information gathered from satellite imagery analysis and other national technical means.

North Korea’s radiochemical laboratory at Yongbyon was also operational during the last reporting period, from February to July 2021. The laboratory houses North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing facility, which is used to extract the weapons-grade fissile material from spent reactor fuel.

According to the agency’s report, “[T]he five-month timeframe is consistent with the time required to reprocess a complete core of irradiated fuel” from the five-megawatt reactor, in keeping with design information provided to the IAEA by North Korea in 1992. It is likely that North Korea’s latest reprocessing campaign involved fuel rods that were removed after the reactor was last operational, in December 2018.

North Korea has conducted three known reprocessing campaigns, in 2003, 2005, and 2009, each of which lasted for about five months.

Although North Korea appears to be continuing its plutonium production, the IAEA report suggests that the production of enriched uranium-235 has stalled. “The reported centrifuge enrichment facility was not in operation” throughout the last reporting period, the IAEA stated.

But some analysts contend that North Korea may be gearing up to boost its production of enriched uranium, as evidenced by apparent efforts to expand the enrichment hall at Yongbyon. Commercial satellite imagery reveals possible steps to construct a new outer wall at the facility, which some analysts predict could allow North Korea to rachet up its enriched uranium production by 25 percent, according to a Sept. 16 report by CNN.

Other analysts disagree, citing commercial imagery that depicts the removal of cooling units from the enrichment hall. “As proper air conditioning and system cooling is essential to the uranium enrichment process—including maintaining a consistent temperature inside the cascade halls—it is unlikely that the [uranium-enrichment plant] is currently operating,” a group of analysts wrote on Sept. 16 on the 38 North website. Any uranium-enrichment activities will remain paused until those cooling units are replaced, they estimated.

Nevertheless, North Korea’s recent nuclear activities have raised alarm. “The continuation of [North Korea’s] nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi wrote in the agency’s report.

Senior diplomats from Japan, the United States, and South Korea called on Pyongyang to return to talks over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Sung Kim, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, met with Noh Kyu-duk, South Korean special representative for Korean peninsula peace and security affairs, and Takehiro Funakoshi, Japanese director-general for Asian and Oceanic affairs, on Sept. 14 in Tokyo. That scheduled meeting took place the day after Grossi told the IAEA Board of Governors that North Korea’s nuclear program is “cause for serious concern” and after North Korea tested new long-range cruise missiles. The U.S. envoy urged Pyongyang to “respond positively to our multiple offers to meet without preconditions.”

North Korea tested the new cruise missiles on Sept. 11 and the next day described them as a “strategic weapon” that had been developed over two years. The missiles will serve as “an effective deterrent ensuring the security of our state more firmly and overpowering powerfully the anti-[North Korean] military moves of the hostile forces,” North Korean state media reported. One of the missiles flew 1,500 kilometers.

Later in the week, Pyongyang also tested a new train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which state media reported could travel 800 kilometers. The testing of the new system, dubbed the Railway Mobile Missile Regiment, was overseen by a top North Korean military official.

State media said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not attend either missile test.


Pyongyang continues to expand its nuclear capability by testing more missiles and reportedly restarting a reactor capable of producing plutonium.

ATT Members Highlight Small Arms, Light Weapons

October 2021
By Jeff Abramson

Small arms and light weapons and stockpile management were focuses of the recent annual conference of states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty as organizers tried to draw attention to the human harm caused by the trade and misuse of conventional weapons.

Although the formal program largely avoided discussing specific arms transfers, side events at the conference, often led by nongovernmental groups, called attention to controversial weapons deliveries to warring parties in Yemen and other conflicts that contributed to human suffering.

The conference, held Aug. 30–Sept. 3, adopted a hybrid format, with some delegates in Geneva and others joining the meeting remotely. Ambassador Lansana Gberie of Sierra Leone was the conference president.

Representatives of 86 of the treaty’s 110 states-parties were among those participating in the meeting, which took place shortly after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and its capture of billions of dollars in weapons provided to the Afghan government in the years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Whether concern about instability from the loss of control of so many weapons would move more countries to join the treaty is not clear. No new country has deposited legal instruments to become a state-party since 2020, before the sixth conference.

China, which acceded to the ATT in July 2020, was active at the meeting and again reiterated that Beijing does not permit arms exports to nonstate actors.


Reports on Arms Trades Decline

As this graph shows, states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty are becoming less transparent, with fewer of them filing mandated annual reports about their authorized or actual conventional arms transfers. In 2015, 84 percent of member states filed the required annual reports; five years later, the number had dropped to 56 percent. (Source: Arms Trade Treaty Secretariat)



Among the outcomes, the conference called on the states-parties to “better utilise existing guidance and tools developed under relevant international and regional instruments on preventing the illicit trade in [small arms and light weapons] and strengthening stockpile management and security in order to prevent diversion” of weapons.

The treaty requires that countries file an initial report on national implementation practices , as well as annual reports describing authorized or actual conventional arms transfers. This reporting remains a concern for the ATT. The submission rate of annual reports has continued to decline, eroding the improvements in transparency for which treaty advocates hoped.

In 2015, 84 percent of the countries required to report on their transfers filed an annual report with the ATT Secretariat, compared to just 56 percent in 2020. Of those reports that were submitted, a growing number are being restricted for use by treaty members exclusively, rather than being made publicly available. Only 4 percent of states-parties chose private reporting for 2015, but 29 percent have done so for 2020 transfers.

As a new member, China promised to submit its initial report on time, by Oct. 3. Its first annual report is due in May 2022.

The United States, the world largest arms supplier, did not indicate whether it would again recognize its signature to the ATT or move to join the treaty. In a statement at the conference, the U.S. delegation said that a new conventional arms transfer policy “should be finalized shortly and released,” which will be used to review “the proper relationship of the United States” to the ATT. In 2019, in an effort to “unsign” the treaty, the United States informed the United Nations that it did not intend to join the ATT and had no legal obligations under its 2013 signature. Although U.S. officials have remained engaged in other treaty meetings, this was the first year it spoke formally to the annual conference since that decision. (See ACT, September 2020.)

The eighth conference will be held in Geneva on Aug. 22–26, 2022, and be led by Thomas Göbel, Germany’s representative to the Conference on Disarmament.

The annual ATT conference tried to draw attention to the human harm caused by the trade and misuse of conventional weapons.

New Action Plan Adopted on Cluster Munitions

October 2021
By William Ostermeyer and Jeff Abramson

States-parties to the pandemic-delayed review conference for the Convention on Cluster Munitions have agreed to a new five-year plan intended to “move forward towards a world free of cluster munitions.”

These unexploded cluster bomb submunitions hit a remote area of Azerbaijan near the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline in October 2020 during the military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Photo by Aziz Karimov/Getty Images)During Sept. 20–21, the second five-year review conference came together in a hybrid format, with some delegates meeting in person in Geneva while the rest participated remotely.

Originally scheduled to take place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2020 to mark 10 years since the treaty entered into force, the conference met virtually for three days in November 2020 and postponed adoption of documents in hopes that in-person meetings would be possible in 2021.

The Lausanne Action Plan adopted last month includes 50 specific measures, covering topics such as treaty universalization, stockpile destruction, clearance of contaminated lands, risk education, and victim assistance.

The conference issued a declaration expressing concern about new cluster munitions use since the 2015 action plan, specifically in Syria, Yemen, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In the declaration, the states-parties wrote: “We underscore our obligation never under any circumstances to use cluster munitions and, in accordance with the object and provisions of the Convention, we condemn any use of cluster munitions by any actor, remaining steadfast in our determination to achieve a world entirely free of any use of these weapons.” Whether to name specific instances of cluster munitions use and how to express condemnation have been a contentious issues in recent convention meetings. (See ACT, October 2019.)

The Cluster Munition Monitor, published by the Cluster Munition Coalition, identified 360 cluster munitions-related casualties globally in 2020. One hundred and forty-two casualties occurred at the time of attacks associated with the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was a fresh cluster munitions hot spot in 2020, and from the fighting in Syria. Another 218 casualties resulted from remnants that exploded in eight countries and territories.

Some of these incidents, like those in Laos and Cambodia, occurred decades after the original attacks.

Under the treaty, countries commit to clear within 10 years cluster munitions contamination from territory they control. At the review conference, states-parties recognized Croatia, Montenegro, and the United Kingdom (for the Falkland Islands) for fulfilling this requirement, adding to eight other countries that had already done so since 2010. Afghanistan, Chile, and Mauritania received approval for extensions to this deadline.

Twenty-six states and three areas are confirmed or suspected to still have contaminated land, including 10 of the 110 states-parties to the convention. Laos, Iraq, Vietnam, and Cambodia are among the most heavily contaminated countries in the world and accounted for 95 percent of the 135 square kilometers of land cleared of cluster submunitions in 2020, according to the Mine Action Review.

The United States is not party to the convention and continued its practice of not attending formal treaty meetings.

Aidan Liddle of the UK will be president of next year’s meeting of states-parties, the 10th overall. Treaty members agreed to resume intersessional meetings, which had been discontinued, between annual formal meetings, with Liddle to set a date for one in 2022. In the future, each annual meeting will decide whether to hold intersessional meetings in the upcoming year. Iraq will hold the presidency for the 11th annual meeting, in 2023.

The review conference for the Convention on Cluster Munitions aims for progress on expanding convention membership, stockpile destruction, and clearance of contaminated lands.


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