"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Arms Control Today

NPT Review Delayed Again

July/August 2021

The pivotal 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has been postponed again, until sometime in 2022, according to multiple diplomatic sources.

The meeting, which typically occurs every five years and involves hundreds of representatives from most of the 191 states-parties to the treaty, was originally set to begin in April 2020 at UN headquarters in New York. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 led to an initial decision to reschedule until “no later than April 2021.” (See ACT, April 2020.) In October 2020, conference president-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen announced that states-parties decided to postpone again, until August 2021. (See ACT, November 2020.)

But with the COVID-19 virus still posing a public health threat in many parts of the world, a majority of states-parties have told Zlauvinen they want a further postponement, until 2022. They have not yet settled on a new date for the month-long meeting.

One option would have been to start the conference on Jan. 17, 2022, but sources indicated that China objected because that would conflict with the opening session of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. An alternative option under discussion is to start earlier, on Jan. 4, but that would conflict with the first meeting of states-parties to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, now set for Jan. 12–14 in Vienna. (See ACT, May 2021.)

The NPT review conference caps a five-year cycle of meetings during which states-parties review implementation and compliance with the treaty and seek agreement on action steps to overcome new nonproliferation challenges and to fulfill core goals and objectives.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

NPT Review Delayed Again

OPCW Confirms Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

July/August 2021

An investigation into 77 allegations of chemical weapons use by Syria has concluded that chemical weapons were likely or definitely used in 17 cases, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported to the UN Security Council on June 3.

A mother and father weep over the body of their child, who was killed in a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, in August 2013. The OPCW says there have been 17 cases of chemical attacks in Syria, including Khan Shaykhun and Ltamenah, both in 2017. (Photo by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images)OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias announced that the world’s chemical weapons watchdog will be addressing new issues during future consultations with Syria, including “the presence of a new chemical weapons agent found in samples collected in large storage containers in September 2020.” He said that the organization had notified Syria of its intention to conduct on-site inspections and requested visas for its expert team, but never received a response.

That is not the first time that Syria has declined to cooperate. In April 2020, the OPCW Executive Council demanded further information regarding three alleged chemical weapons attacks that took place in 2017. Syria declined, and in response, the organization in April suspended Syria’s “rights and privileges,” marking the first time that the OPCW had taken such action since its formation in 1997. (See ACT, May 2021.)

Russia has consistently defended Syria and criticized the OPCW and its investigators. In response to Arias’ report, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, accused the OPCW of exclusively using information “from biased sources opposed to the Syrian government” and of relying on “pseudo witnesses,” according to media reports. He also claimed the OPCW “was established illegitimately” and that therefore it is unfair to expect Syria to comply with its regulations. Russia joined 14 other states, including China, in voting against the measure to restrict Syria’s rights within the multilateral organization.

Richard Mills, U.S. deputy ambassador to the OPCW, called for accountability and further investigation into all alleged cases of weapons use. He defended the OPCW’s legitimacy.

Despite Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 under heavy international pressure, questions remain about the validity of the country’s chemical weapons declarations. Arias reported that one of the deadliest attacks took place in 2017, three years after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared that the destruction of the country’s chemical weapons program was complete.—HOLLIS RAMMER

OPCW Confirms Chemical Weapons Use in Syria

UN Adopts Nonbinding Arms Embargo On Myanmar

July/August 2021

More than four months after the Myanmar military overthrew the country’s elected leaders, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that “calls upon all member states to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar.”

A protester holds the flag of the National League for Democracy, the party of jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while making the three-finger salute during a flash mob demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on June 25. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)Although supported by 119 of the assembly’s 193 member states on June 18, the resolution lacks the binding nature that can come with UN Security Council resolutions and is more of a political message than a punitive measure. Among the Security Council’s five permanent members, China and Russia abstained, typically an indication that a binding Security Council embargo resolution would not be adopted.

Arms trade with Myanmar, still called Burma by U.S. officials, has long been controversial, with Western countries at times shunning weapons sales during the country’s most undemocratic periods. Not surprisingly, EU member states were well represented among the original sponsors of the resolution. The European Union has maintained some form of arms embargo on the country since the 1990s.

The United States also voted for the resolution. Within the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the majority of members supported the measure, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, as well as Myanmar, whose pre-junta ambassador is still recognized by the United Nations.

According to the latest reporting by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on global trends on the transfer of major conventional weapons, Myanmar accounts for less than 1 percent of global arms imports, with China, India, and Russia supplying more than 80 percent of those weapons. India was among the 36 countries that abstained on the resolution. Only Belarus voted against it—JEFF ABRAMSON

UN Adopts Nonbinding Arms Embargo On Myanmar

Engage China on Arms Control? Yes, and Here’s How

June 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

For more than six decades, the United States has been worried about China’s regional influence, military activities—and nuclear potential. For instance, in 1958, U.S. officials considered using nuclear weapons to thwart Chinese artillery strikes on islands controlled by Taiwan, according to recently leaked documents. Then, as now, a nuclear conflict between the United States and China would be devastating.

 (Photo by TEH ENG KOON / AFP/Getty Images)“There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state,” Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, warned in February.

Worse yet, as tensions between the United States and China continue to grow, many members of Congress, along with the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment, are hyping China’s ongoing nuclear weapons modernization effort as a major new threat.

During testimony before Congress in April, Richard claimed that China’s military is engaged in a “breathtaking expansion” of its arsenal of some 300 nuclear weapons. He argued that this requires fortifying the U.S. nuclear armory, which is already 10 times larger than China’s.

Instead, U.S. policymakers need to avoid steps that stimulate nuclear competition with China and pursue serious talks designed to prevent miscalculation and reduce the risk of conflict. The United States also needs to develop a realistic strategy for involving China and the other major nuclear-armed states in the nuclear disarmament process.

According to U.S. projections, China could increase the size of its arsenal. It is deploying new solid-fueled missiles that can be launched more quickly than its older liquid-fueled missiles, increasing the number of its long-range missiles that are armed with multiple warheads, putting more of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on mobile trucks, and continuing to improve its sea-based nuclear force.

These moves, while concerning, do not justify alarmism. China is not seeking to match U.S. nuclear capabilities. Rather, it is clearly seeking to diversify its nuclear forces so it can maintain a nuclear deterrent that can withstand potential U.S. nuclear or conventional strikes.

Beijing’s nuclear plans are also likely designed to hedge against advancing U.S. missile defense capabilities, such as the sea-based Standard Missile-3 Block IIA system, which could potentially compromise China’s nuclear retaliatory potential.

Although China’s arsenal may be smaller, it is still dangerous. Beijing’s nuclear modernization efforts make it all the more important to pursue meaningful progress on nuclear arms control.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed that the Biden administration will “pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal,” but has not explained how it will do so.

Leaders in Beijing claim to support nondiscriminatory disarmament and minimum deterrence, yet they have said they will engage on arms control only when U.S. and Russian leaders achieve deeper cuts in their much-larger nuclear arsenals. The United States and Russia can and should do more to cut their bloated nuclear stockpiles. But as a nuclear-weapon state party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, China is also obligated to help end the arms race and achieve disarmament sooner rather than later.

Yet, simply demanding, as the Trump administration did, that China join the arms control process is a recipe for failure. Instead, the Biden administration should adopt a more pragmatic approach that takes into account China’s concerns, and Chinese leaders need to be prepared to respond with constructive ideas.

To start, U.S. President Joe Biden could propose a new bilateral nuclear security dialogue designed to clarify each other’s nuclear postures and establish better lines of communication that could reduce the risks of miscalculation in a crisis.

The U.S. State Department should invite Chinese diplomats to join in developing a plan for fortifying the existing dialogue on nuclear weapons policy and risk reduction among the five nuclear-weapon states: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For instance, these states could consider joint arms control verification exercises based on the U.S.-Russian experience and negotiate a common system for reporting on their respective nuclear weapons holdings. They could also formulate a joint understanding that cybercapabilities will not be used to interfere with other states’ nuclear command and control.

An even more ambitious approach would be for Washington and Moscow to propose that China, France, and the UK freeze the size of their nuclear stockpiles so long as the United States and Russia continue to achieve deeper verifiable reductions in their arsenals.

At the same time, the Biden team must resist calls for new U.S. weapons deployments, including land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Asia, that would compound nuclear tensions with China and give Beijing a cynical excuse to expand its arsenal.

Engaging China on effective arms control and disarmament will be difficult and will take time, but it is necessary because there are no winners in an unconstrained arms race.

For more than six decades, the United States has been worried about China’s regional influence, military activities—and nuclear potential.

Understanding the Risks and Realities of China’s Nuclear Forces

June 2021
By Gerald C. Brown

In its recent annual threat assessment, the U.S. intelligence community described how China is pursuing “the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history” and is intending to “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile during the next decade.” Although deeply concerning, this description should be put in context. 

China recently deployed the D-17, a new kind of medium-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle, that may be nuclear-capable. Because they fly at low altitude, hypersonic gliders may cause problems for U.S. missile defense systems. (Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)The U.S. Department of Defense estimates China’s deployed nuclear forces to number in the low 200s. Even if doubled, this is substantially lower than the approximately 1,500 deployed strategic nuclear forces the United States maintains on alert daily under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Despite the rising numbers, China seems unlikely to quantitatively outpace U.S. nuclear forces in the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, China’s capabilities represent a substantial threat that must not be ignored. Quantitative comparisons of nuclear arsenals are a relatively crude manner of understanding nuclear risks and, in the case of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, wholly insufficient. More than ever, U.S. policymakers need to understand Chinese nuclear strategy. In the U.S.-Chinese context, policymakers should be more focused on how conventional weapons and related strategies could impact the nuclear calculus between the two countries. 

Chinese Nuclear Strategy

Unlike Russia and the United States, China has found nuclear weapons to be of rather limited utility in war-fighting. It built what it describes as a “lean and effective” nuclear deterrent, with the intentions of deterring a nuclear attack and preventing nuclear coercion.1 Strategists in Beijing have long thought that the destructive force of nuclear weapons limits their utility, while conventional forces are more flexible and usable in conflict. Conventional forces are thought to be where wars are won or lost.2 In that sense, China’s nuclear forces are intended to check U.S. nuclear dominance while winning conventional conflicts at lower levels of escalation. To make that happen, China is seeking to build a nuclear force capable of surviving a nuclear first strike and retaliating with an unacceptable level of damage. Experts have perhaps best described China’s nuclear strategy as one of “assured retaliation.”3 Instead of seeking parity with other nuclear states and being able to engage in counterforce campaigns, China finds it sufficient to maintain a more modest, secure, and survivable force. If China can sufficiently absorb a first strike and retaliate, even with only a few warheads, Beijing believes an adversary is unlikely to decide that the risk of attacking China is worth the benefit.

Since China’s first nuclear test in 1964, it has consistently maintained a public, declaratory no-first-use policy, adhering to what it describes as a “self-defensive nuclear strategy” that would anticipate using nuclear weapons only as a “counterattack in self-defense.”4 Western analysts have rightfully pointed out that a no-first-use pledge may not be entirely credible on its own. Although the pledge may be sincerely held, during a crisis, escalation could be unpredictable. Additionally, a small number of Chinese analysts have suggested that what China defines as a counterattack may be ambiguous under certain, limited conditions, such as conventional attacks seeking to neutralize China’s nuclear forces.5 

Despite Western doubts, the fact remains that Chinese strategists believe that the pledge holds true. An unambiguous no-first-use stance remains the official stance of the Chinese government, and China’s nuclear strategy is built around this concept. Authoritative texts on Chinese military thinking have described three major missions for Chinese nuclear forces. In peacetime, they seek to deter enemies from launching a nuclear war with China. In wartime, they constrain the scope of war, preventing a conventional conflict from escalating to a nuclear exchange. If war does escalate to nuclear conflict, they serve to conduct nuclear counterattacks.6 The texts consistently describe only one envisioned use of nuclear weapons, the nuclear counterattack operation, in response to a nuclear strike.7 

Operational practices have reinforced this. Beijing maintains a highly centralized nuclear warhead storage and handling system, with warheads typically thought to be stored unmated from their delivery vehicles rather than loaded and ready for launch.8 Further, training for nuclear brigades reflects the practice of counterattacking under nuclear conditions. Yet, there are indications of evolution. Recent U.S. government reports have suggested that some People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) brigades may spend time on higher alert and may seek to shift to a launch-on-warning posture in the future in order to increase survivability under nuclear attack. China has been developing a space-based early-warning system with assistance from Russia that could support this.9 

Nuclear Force Projections

As the U.S. annual threat assessment noted, there are signs of recent substantial changes in Chinese nuclear forces. The most important changes have been primarily qualitative, but notable quantitative changes are also occurring. These are understandably alarming to U.S. policymakers. Although the size of Chinese nuclear forces may still be dwarfed by the U.S. arsenal, its growth represents a substantial complication for the United States. Further, although the United States and Russia are modernizing their arsenals, they have been reducing their stockpiles over the past few decades slowly but significantly. China’s nuclear expansion represents a concerning shift away from its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to reduce its arsenal, and that is likely to impact U.S. and Russian decision-making.

Chinese military officers, shown here at a 2019 parade in Beijing, operate under a doctrine that assumes conventional forces, not nuclear forces, win wars, author Gerald Brown writes. (Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)Yet, understanding these changes in the context of China’s nuclear strategy is important. Instead of trying to reach parity with or exceed the U.S. nuclear arsenal, China seems intent on ensuring that it has an assured retaliatory capability following U.S. strikes. Given U.S. nuclear and technological superiority, China likely has never had a sufficiently survivable nuclear deterrent against the United States, a goal that was more aspirational than anything else. Revolutions in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technologies, coupled with advances in conventional precision weapons, have long rendered China’s nuclear forces vulnerable. The U.S. ballistic missile defense program threatens to intercept any surviving retaliatory force, further jeopardizing China’s retaliatory capability.

For the first time in history, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seems to be moving toward a survivable nuclear force capable of executing a second strike. Research suggests that Chinese nuclear expansions and modernization are oriented toward creation of a more mobile and redundant force that can survive U.S. counterforce capabilities, including conventional systems such as the Conventional Prompt Global Strike system, and its missiles being able to penetrate U.S. missile defense systems.10 Consequently, although China’s nuclear force size will expand, it does not appear likely to expand to the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the near future.

There is understandable doubt about the claim of China doubling its nuclear arsenal, but it does not appear to be out of the question. China is fielding an increasing number of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle weapons, such as the DF-5B deployed in 2015 and the recently deployed DF-5C and DF-41, that improve the ability of China’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) arsenal to penetrate the U.S. missile defense system.11 Defense Department estimates do not appear to include the DF-41, which is just starting to be deployed. Installing multiple warheads on these weapons will quickly expand the number of nuclear weapons in China’s arsenal. Further, PLARF brigades have been increasing at an unprecedented rate. The number of PLARF brigades reportedly increased from 29 to 40 between 2017 and 2020, and brigades continue to be added as new missile types are fielded.12

China’s shift to a nuclear triad will further increase the number of its nuclear warheads as these new systems are equipped. China is creating a more survivable nuclear submarine force, expanding the number of Type 094 ballistic missile submarines and developing the quieter Type 096 submarine with the JL-3 sea-launched ballistic missile as a complement. The PLA Air Force is also adopting a nuclear mission by developing a new air-launched ballistic missile that may be nuclear capable, as well as the nuclear-capable H-20 strategic bomber.13

Significantly, not all of China’s nuclear weapons are intercontinental forces capable of striking targets located in the continental United States. China has invested in nuclear weapons that specifically threaten the immediate region. Its new air capabilities, along with recently deployed midrange and intermediate-range ballistic missiles such as the DF-21E and the DF-26, hold regional adversaries and U.S. overseas bases at risk. China also recently deployed a new hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, that may be nuclear capable. Importantly, although China’s nuclear expansion may be oriented toward a strategy of assured retaliation, that does not prevent Beijing from orienting its expanding nuclear capabilities toward a more threatening posture in the future. As China’s capabilities expand, its operational doctrine may well follow suit.

Emboldened Conventional Operations

China’s nuclear forces can be considerably more concerning when not considered in isolation from other tools of war. Analysts and policymakers need to look at how nuclear weapons can affect the broader picture of warfare, including how they impact PLA conventional operations and the type of wars China envisions fighting. 

China’s military strategy is focused on “winning informationized local wars,” effectively local, high tech wars in which the information domain will play a dominant role. Although the PLA’s reach is increasingly global, it has oriented itself toward local conflicts, with a particular emphasis on maritime conflicts, as the main war-fighting domain. This primarily concerns Taiwan but also the East and South China seas among others.14 In 2015, the PLA made a drastic change to its command structure, orienting itself into joint war-fighting theater commands, directly geared to fighting in these regions. The PLA seeks to deter the United States from intervening in these local wars or to defeat the United States locally if it does. 

In these local wars, nuclear overmatch against the United States is hardly necessary. Instead, China is more concerned with preventing U.S. nuclear coercion and intervention and constraining the scope of any war that may erupt. PLA strategists appear to believe that the United States would not intervene in a conflict that did not directly threaten the United States if there was a risk that the conflict could escalate to the nuclear level.15 As Zhao Xijun, former deputy commander of the Second Artillery Force, has said, states “become very cautious” when contemplating military intervention against other nuclear-armed states.16

Evidence suggests that a secure second-strike force may even embolden the PLA in local conventional conflicts, allowing them to accept greater risks at lower levels of escalation. That especially holds true when considering that all sides in China’s multiple territorial claims perceive themselves as defending the status quo.17 Research has revealed the PLA’s overconfidence in its ability to control conventional escalation. Unlike in the case of nuclear weapons, Chinese documents emphasize “seizing the initiative” early in conventional conflicts. They envision using tools such as cyberwarfare and conventional missiles early, hard, and fast, even preemptively.18 Although the focus of these writings is not nuclear weapons use, conventional operations could be emboldened by perceptions of nuclear stability. 

Entanglement Risks

Another complication is that firebreaks between conventional and nuclear forces are increasingly blurred in modern warfare, and substantial risks exist when conventional strategies affect nuclear forces. One notable example involves discussions on space weapons. PLA assessments have highlighted the increasing importance of this domain, and the asymmetric weakness represented by U.S. overreliance on space in conflict. Critiques of Chinese military writings point toward the offense-dominant nature of such operations and the need to control the space domain early in conflict. They further assert that attacks against U.S. satellites would carry relatively low escalation risks and could even deescalate a conflict.19 

U.S. satellite systems, however, are dual use, enabling a wide range of conventional and nuclear operations. Attacks against U.S. satellites would not only affect the country’s conventional capabilities, they would jeopardize the heart of the U.S. nuclear command, control, and communications and early-warning capabilities.20 Further, although Chinese military analysts highlight the advantages of engaging in satellite attacks during conventional conflicts, the same actions would likely be taken prior to a nuclear conflict in order to degrade the effectiveness of U.S. missile defenses and ensure the effectiveness of a nuclear strike. As a result, Washington would view any Chinese attack on its satellites as profoundly destabilizing, potentially inciting a U.S. nuclear response.

Similar entanglement risks exist with Chinese forces. PLARF bases all appear to host conventional and nuclear missile brigades. These are geographically separated from each other, but most of the weapons are on mobile platforms, creating overlapping risks when deployed. Conventional and nuclear forces seem to rely on the same supply and logistics infrastructure. Although command and control infrastructure are ostensibly separate, the extent of this separation is not fully understood, and overlap seems likely to exist.21 Additionally, China’s nuclear submarine force appears to share the same onshore communications systems with Chinese conventional submarines.22

DF-26 missiles are featured in the military parade in Beijing, China, Sept. 3, 2015. (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)Furthermore, an increasing number of midrange to intermediate-range weapons systems are dual use. Although the DF-21 maintains distinct conventional and nuclear variants that are typically not co-located, they are likely indistinguishable when deployed. In the case of the DF-26, conventional and nuclear warheads are likely co-located. Reports have highlighted DF-26 brigades, equipped with conventional and nuclear weapons, that hold drills in which units launch a conventional attack and then reload with a nuclear warhead to prepare for nuclear counterattacks.23

In conflict, attacks against China’s shore-based communications systems that are directed at China’s conventional submarine force would cut off its nuclear-armed submarine force as well. Campaigns against China’s vast conventional missile force would almost certainly degrade China’s nuclear force too. The fixed bases supporting PLARF brigades would be likely targets as the dual nature of these bases means conventional and nuclear forces share the same base headquarters, resulting in severed communications and logistics networks for PLA nuclear forces. Even if China’s nuclear and conventional command and control networks were sufficiently separate, it would be challenging to distinguish between them. Conventional and nuclear midrange to intermediate-range weapons would likely be indistinguishable in conflict. 

How would China respond to attacks against these dual-use systems and the degradation of its nuclear force? It is somewhat comforting that China’s ICBM force is relatively distinguishable from its dual-use weapons, and the majority of the force is located deeper within the Chinese mainland. What is not obvious is how strikes against regional-range nuclear forces would be perceived by Beijing in the middle of armed conflict. If China’s nuclear forces were degraded in any way, authorities could conclude that they no longer have a survivable deterrent. In the heat of a conflict, it is difficult to assess how Chinese decision-makers would react to this. 

Further, a degraded Chinese nuclear force, in the middle of a crisis, could provide a tempting counterforce target for the United States. In such a case, there would be a challenge of perceptions, with neither the United States nor China truly knowing the other’s intentions. In conflict, with the ability to destroy China’s nuclear force or at least limit damage to itself should China opt for nuclear use, would the United States decide that a counterforce strike is worth the risk? The United States would understand that if it failed to strike, China could opt to use its remaining nuclear forces and inflict substantial damage. Similarly, knowing the United States faced such a dilemma and that it could face a disabling counterforce strike, China would be faced with strong use-it-or-lose-it pressures. All of these circumstances would be exacerbated by the fog of war, a degraded information environment, and the speed required to make decisions. 

Some Western analysts have speculated that China’s conventional and nuclear weapons capabilities have been intentionally entangled to heighten the risks facing adversaries and to deter conflict. There is little evidence that this was a motivator. Instead, the PLA likely sought to take advantage of economies of scale. It is far cheaper and more logical for China to use the same designs for conventional and nuclear variants to its weapons, allowing for savings on manpower, production, maintenance, and research costs. Even so, this is hardly comforting and may leave the PLA less aware of risks resulting from a comingled system. States that entangle forces intentionally are likely better prepared for the risks involved. When such entanglement arises from nonstrategic reasons, as seems likely in China’s case, states are less aware of the escalatory risks, which may exacerbate escalatory pressures in a conflict.24

War Control and Inadvertent Escalation

There is little evidence that technological entanglement is a direct, strategic choice, but there are some limited indications that China could use nuclear signaling to constrain the extent of conventional conflicts and contribute to escalation control.25 Nuclear signaling includes such actions as test launches, release of the locations of targets, an increase in readiness levels, missile deployments, or other actions to demonstrate resolve. The goal would not be necessarily to use nuclear weapons. Instead, the signaling would aim to raise fears that a conflict could credibly escalate to the nuclear level, thus “causing the enemy to dread that the possible consequences of its actions will be that its losses will exceed its gains, thereby causing the enemy to change its plans for risky activities and achieving the goal of restricting the war to a certain scope.”26 In this way, China could capitalize on the uncertainty of a potential nuclear conflict to deter intervention and constrain escalation in conventional conflicts in the Pacific region. Such risks are compounded by China’s use of purposeful ambiguity as an integral component of its approach to nuclear deterrence.27

One major problem is that such signaling by the Chinese may be indistinguishable from preparations for a nuclear attack. Yet, writings by experts on deterrence and signaling operations fail to acknowledge that these provocative actions could be misinterpreted by an adversary. In general, Chinese experts seem to believe that nuclear escalation is unlikely to be effectively controlled, but are overconfident that conventional conflict can be controlled without escalating to the nuclear level.28 Lack of awareness about escalation risks could very well make the PLA more aggressive in local conflicts. 

Finally, the concept of an “existential threat” may be different in China than many perceive it to be. The PLA is not China’s professional military so much as it is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, a point drilled into PLA members and emphasized in the era of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the party.29 In that sense, destruction of the party may be synonymous with destruction of the state. Such conflation of ideas could come into play in the face of a humiliating conventional defeat by China over Taiwan or another dispute that China considers central to its sovereignty. If there were a perceived risk, irrational or not, that such losses could fracture the legitimacy of the Communist Party, drastic actions could become more likely. If Beijing perceived that nuclear weapons use would ensure victory in a conflict, it might escalate to using nuclear weapons in a last-ditch effort.


For all the concern from U.S. policymakers about China’s nuclear expansion, relatively little attention has gone into adequately examining the country’s military and nuclear strategies. There is a tendency among many U.S. policymakers to blindly equate the challenge of China with the strategies faced by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War or to mirror image their own strategic thinking onto Chinese strategists. That is insufficient and dangerous. 

China’s thinking on escalation and war-fighting often differs substantially from that of the Americans and Soviets. The authoritative literature on these subjects within the Chinese system does not represent errant thoughts of lone strategists. It represents doctrinally informed guidance that culminates the work of dozens of China’s top strategists, originating from China’s most authoritative institutions with ties directly to China’s decision-making bodies, and is used to educate and inform PLA officers. Although written for an internal audience, several of the most important of these texts, such as “Science of Military Strategy” and “Science of Campaigns,” have been translated into English by U.S. scholars and need to be mined thoroughly by U.S. planners for insights.30 

There is also a need for greater engagement and crisis management measures between U.S. and Chinese officials. Varying levels of formal and informal dialogues between Chinese and U.S. officials directly or between delegations of recently retired officials help alleviate misperceptions and enhance understanding of escalation triggers and redlines. Although there have been some talks at the unofficial level in recent years, Beijing remains reluctant to pursue official talks on nuclear weapons. Given the substantial misperceptions in the relationship, regular engagements are critical. Similarly, crisis management mechanisms would be to the advantage of both sides in communicating intentions and alleviating misperceptions during a crisis. Thus far, the pursuit of new initiatives has met limited success, and Beijing tends to eschew the methods that are in place. Although arms control agreements appear to be unfeasible between the United States and China for the time being, official talks and better crisis management measures would be a strong first step. 

Finally, the United States needs to look at deterrence and escalation more holistically. The primary risks of nuclear escalation stemming from the U.S.-Chinese relationship do not come from nuclear weapons alone. Warfare is increasingly complicated; a greater appreciation of how conventional and nuclear strategies intersect is needed. In the Indo-Pacific theater, conventional forces may play a greater role in deterrence than many in the nuclear community acknowledge. U.S. Admiral Phil Davison, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, recently observed that “the greatest danger the United States and our allies face in the region is the erosion of conventional deterrence vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China.” Increasingly, this erosion affects conventional and nuclear strategies. Organizational separation within the U.S. military establishment may leave conventional and nuclear planners ill-informed of escalation risks stemming from areas outside their purview. Better integration of conventional and nuclear communities, a more holistic understanding of the risks and challenges, and a bolstering of regional conventional forces could play a significant role in managing and deterring conflict that could otherwise escalate to the nuclear level.



1. M. Taylor Fravel, Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019), pp. 243–247.

2. Michael Chase, “PLA Rocket Force: Executors of China’s Nuclear Strategy and Policy,” in China’s Evolving Military Strategy, ed. Joe McReynolds (Washington: The Jamestown Foundation, 2017), p. 144; Liu Chong, “The Relationship Between Nuclear Weapons and Conventional Military Conflicts,” in Understanding Chinese Nuclear Thinking, ed. Li Bin and Tong Zhao (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), 2016), pp. 153–159. 

3. M. Taylor Fravel and Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s Search for Assured Retaliation: The Evolution of Chinese Nuclear Strategy and Force Structure,” International Security, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Fall 2010): 48-87; Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” International Security, Vol. 40, No. 2 (October 2015): 7–50. 

4. Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2006,” December 2006, http://www.andrewerickson.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/China-Defense-White-Paper_2006_English-Chinese_Annotated.pdf

5. Christopher P. Twomey, “China’s Nuclear Doctrine and Deterrence Concept,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems, ed. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2021), pp. 51–55.

6. Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” p. 142; Fravel, Active Defense, p. 242.

7. Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” pp. 12–15; Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” pp. 148–149.

8. 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_handling_system.pdf

9. U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” 2020, pp. 88-89, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF.

10. Cunningham and Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation,” pp. 15–23.

11. Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2020,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 76, No. 6 (November 1, 2020): 445.

12. P.W. Singer and Ma Xiu, “China’s Missile Force Is Growing at an Unprecedented Rate,” Popular Science, February 25, 2020. 

13. Hans M. Kristensen, “China’s Strategic Systems and Programs,” in China’s Strategic Arsenal: Worldview, Doctrine, and Systems, ed. James M. Smith and Paul J. Bolt (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2021), pp. 108–112.

14. M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s New Military Strategy: ‘Winning Informationized Local Wars,’” China Brief, Vol. 15, No. 13 (July 2, 2015): 3–7.

15. M. Taylor Fravel and Fiona Cunningham, “Dangerous Confidence: Chinese Views on Nuclear Escalation,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Fall 2019): 79–81.

16. Eric Heginbotham et al., “China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States,” RAND Corp., 2017, pp. 17–18, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1628.html.

17. Thomas J. Christensen, “The Meaning of the Nuclear Evolution: China’s Strategic Modernization and U.S.-China Security Relations,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4 (August 29, 2012): 463–466.

18. Burgess Laird, “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict,” Center for a New American Security, 2017, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/war-control; Alison A. Kaufman and Daniel M. Hartnett, “Managing Conflict: Examining Recent PLA Writings on Escalation Control,” CNA, February 2016, pp. 81–82, https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/DRM-2015-U-009963-Final3.pdf.

19. Kevin Pollpeter, “Space, the New Domain: Space Operations and Chinese Military Reforms,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 39, Nos. 5-6 (September 18, 2016): 709–727; Zhao Tong and Bin Li, “The Underappreciated Risks of Entanglement: A Chinese Perspective,” in Entanglement: Russian and Chinese Perspectives on Non-Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Risks, ed. James M. Acton (Washington: CEIP, 2017), pp. 63–66; Laird, “War Control,” pp. 17–19. For a Track 1.5 talk between U.S. and Chinese officials in which anti-satellite strikes were proposed to deescalate conflict, see David Santoro and Robert Gromoll, “On the Value of Nuclear Dialogue With China: A Review and Assessment of the Track 1.5 ‘China-U.S. Strategic Nuclear Dynamics Dialogue,’” Issues and Insights, Vol. 20, No. 1 (November 2020): 19.

20. James M. Acton, “Escalation Through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 1 (August 2018): 63–66.

21. Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear? Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War With the United States,” International Security, Vol. 41, No. 4 (April 2017): 73–79.

22. Zhao Tong, “Tides of Change: China’s Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and Strategic Stability,” CEIP, 2018, pp. 42–43, 83-84, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Zhao_SSBN_final.pdf.

23. Joshua Pollack and Scott LaFoy, “China’s DF-26: A Hot-Swappable Missile?” Arms Control Wonk, May 17, 2020, https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1209405/chinas-df-26-a-hot-swappable-missile/

24. David C. Logan, “Are They Reading Schelling in Beijing? The Dimensions, Drivers, and Risks of Nuclear-Conventional Entanglement in China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, November 12, 2020, pp. 30–38.

25. Christopher T. Yeaw, Andrew S. Erickson, and Michael S. Chase, “The Future of Chinese Nuclear Policy and Strategy,” in Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age, ed. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012), pp. 53–64; Heginbotham et al., “China’s Evolving Nuclear Deterrent,” pp. 26–31.

26. Yu Jixun, ed., Science of Second Artillery Campaigns (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004), pp. 273–274 (in Chinese).

27. Chase, “PLA Rocket Force,” p. 156.

28. Fravel and Cunningham, “Dangerous Confidence,” pp. 101–104.

29. David Finkelstein, “Breaking the Paradigm: Drivers Behind the PLA’s Current Period of Reform,” in Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms, ed. Phillip C. Saunders et al. (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2019), pp. 48–51.

30. See China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), “Science of Military Strategy (2013),” In Their Own Words, n.d., https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/documents/Translations/2021-02-08%20Chinese%20Military%20Thoughts-%20In%20their%20own%20words%20Science%20of%20Military%20Strategy%202013.pdf; CASI, “Science of Campaigns (2006),” In Their Own Words, n.d., https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/documents/Translations/2020-12-02%20In%20Their%20Own%20Words-%20Science%20of%20Campaigns%20(2006).pdf. Additionally, for an excellent assessment by U.S. scholars of “Science of Military Strategy (2013)” and related texts, see Joe McReynolds, ed., China’s Evolving Military Strategy (Washington: The Jamestown Foundation, 2017).

Gerald C. Brown is an analyst with Valiant Integrated Services focusing on nuclear deterrence and East Asian security.


More than ever, U.S. policymakers need to understand Chinese nuclear strategy.

Nuclear Launch Authority: Too Big a Decision for Just the President

June 2021
By David S. Jonas and Bryn McWhorter

As it has been since the dawn of the atomic age, the president possesses the sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons by the United States. Not since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II has the United States or any other power launched a nuclear attack. In recent years, however, interest in ending this exclusive control over the most lethal weapons on earth has increased demonstrably. 

A military aide to then-President Donald Trump carries a briefcase known as the "nuclear football" that contains the codes needed to launch a nuclear war through the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, in 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)Calls for sharing this authority escalated during the last administration, when President Donald Trump made a habit of unilaterally changing national policy at the speed of a tweet. The calls have continued into the Biden presidency,1 even among anti-Trump Democrats who have come to understand that no one leader should have unilateral control of nuclear launch authority. Various politicians,2 along with legal and national security experts,3 have called for a new process requiring the involvement of multiple parties before a nuclear attack is authorized, rather than continuing to allow the decision to be controlled by a single individual. 

In general, these proposals differentiate between the first use and second use of nuclear weapons. Most experts would leave untouched the president’s sole authority in instances of second use, that is, when the United States is already under nuclear attack and must respond rapidly in self-defense. The primary concern is when a president intends to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons. In that instance, when there is time to involve others in the decision, it is necessary and justifiable for the president’s power to be appropriately and reasonably curtailed. 

Options for Constraining the President

There are several proposals to constrain the president. One would require consensus among the president, vice president, and speaker of the House of Representatives4—the two individuals next in line in the constitutionally mandated presidential chain of succession. Another proposal would have the president involve the attorney general and secretary of defense in his decision-making.5 Advancing one of the more ludicrous ideas, others have even advocated a role for the Supreme Court.6 Some experts have called for a consultation,7 rather than consensus, requirement in which the president would discuss the momentous decision with an array of high-level national security advisers prior to authorizing the launch of nuclear weapons but not be bound by what they advise. Finally, some politicians have advocated for laws prohibiting the president from authorizing a nuclear attack in the first instance absent a declaration of war by Congress.8 None of those options are realistic or acceptable. 

The first proposal should fail because it would require the approval of the speaker of the House, an individual outside the executive branch. Often, this person will be of a different political party than the president. On one level, that could be viewed as a benefit. Because of the magnitude of the decision, requiring consensus among individuals on opposing sides of the political aisle seems reasonable on the face of it. As the specifics become clear, however, the matter could result in political horse trading. Additionally, the importance of operating from a basis of national unity cannot be overstated given the profound consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons. 

Although salient, such considerations are not compelling in this context. The launch of a nuclear weapon must remain a national security decision. It must not be subject to political games in what could well be a life-or-death situation for the United States. Could anyone imagine Trump seeking approval for a nuclear first strike from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)? The current poisonous political atmosphere in U.S. politics will hopefully subside, but decisions of such existential consequence must always reflect the primacy of national security over politics.

Moreover, the addition of congressional participation in such a vital national security decision would violate the separation of powers principle. The president alone is vested with the powers of commander in chief. That is not to demean the congressional role in military matters. Congress holds the power to declare war, even though it has not formally done so since World War II; authorizes military use of force short of war through statute; and is charged with authorizing and appropriating funds for the armed forces and setting rules for the administration of military justice. Nevertheless, the power to select the methods of waging war should remain solely with the executive branch. 

The second proposal deviates too far from the presidential chain of succession by excluding the vice president and incorporating the attorney general. Currently, in the event that the vice president must assume the presidency, that individual will also presumably rapidly gain control over the nuclear launch codes. Any attempt to reform this decision-making process should not exclude the first person to whom that responsibility falls. The attorney general, although certainly within the executive branch and frequently involved in legal aspects of national security matters, has no day-to-day involvement in military affairs. It seems nonsensical to make the person holding this position party to one of the most consequential military decisions ever made. That is not to discount the virtue of involving legal counsel in the process; such participation is crucial to ensuring that all applicable laws are observed. Yet, it is more prudent to incorporate lawyers who are well versed in assessing the legality of the use of force. 

A Supreme Court Role?

The third proposal, involving Supreme Court participation, suffers from the same separation of powers issues and expertise deficiencies that would arise in the proposals just discussed. Indeed, even the Supreme Court itself is unlikely to find its own involvement permissible. In Smith v. Obama,9 the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia relied on Supreme Court jurisprudence when declining to resolve the question of whether Congress authorized the use of force against the Islamic State group through the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force on the grounds that it constituted a political question. The court found matters of foreign policy and national security to be textually committed to the political branches of government, meaning allocated to the executive or legislative branches by the Constitution itself. It found inappropriate this kind of judicial second-guessing of the executive branch’s application of the authorizations to facts on the ground during ongoing combat operations. Following that line of case law and reasoning, the Supreme Court would also likely find the question of the use of nuclear weapons to be one that it lacks the expertise to handle and that is surely a political question meant for resolution by the two political branches of government. 

Even if the justices were integrated into the decision-making more in their personal capacities as lawyers and scholars, thereby averting the legal issues of precedent and political question, it would be imprudent to extricate the justices from their roles on the court. Although litigation may not be a particularly pressing concern following a massive nuclear attack, smaller-scale uses of nuclear weapons could certainly generate lawsuits as nuclear testing has done in the past. If such suits did arise, those justices who participated in the authorization decision would have a conflict of interest necessitating their recusal. 

Although justices recuse themselves from cases periodically, there has never been an entire category of case for which the underlying subject matter would necessarily preclude the Supreme Court from sitting in full. If the justices participated in the proposed manner, it would preclude the court from considering in its entirety a full subject matter, namely the authorization of a nuclear attack and its consequences. Given the importance of this issue, any cases arising from it should receive the consideration of the entire court. 

Those proposals calling for consultation with various national security advisers do not provide a sufficient constraint on this critical decision-making process. The underlying premise of the need for reform is to prevent the arbitrary or unwarranted authorization of the use of nuclear weapons. Consultation alone simply does not go far enough in checking the president’s power in cases of nuclear first use, and such discussions would probably occur anyway. Moreover, there is ambiguity in the concept of consultation that further denigrates its utility in this vital national security context. Requiring consensus provides a clear check on the president’s power, one that mere consultation cannot. 

Lastly, although Congress’s role in the waging of war is crucial, its involvement in the decision to use nuclear weapons is untenable. Apart from the reasons previously mentioned as to why congressional participation is inappropriate in this circumstance, one of the most compelling reasons for its exclusion is practicality. Any discussion regarding the potential authorization of nuclear attack is of the utmost sensitivity and requires complete secrecy. The size of Congress alone makes it a poor keeper of secrets. If information concerning decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons leaked, the United States would likely face attack first, making this option simply unworkable.

The war room of the iconic 1964 black comedy "Dr. Strangelove," which embodied Cold War fears about a first strike nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. Six decades later, those fears remain and calls are growing for Congress to rein in the unilateral authority possessed by U.S. presidents to launch such existential attacks.  (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Untenability of Unilateral Action

Yet, there is surely merit in taking this potentially apocalyptic decision out of the hands of one individual. History shows that, at times, prior presidents acted while impaired, be it John Kennedy under of the influence of pain killers or Richard Nixon intoxicated from alcohol. In the case of Trump, many questioned his decision-making processes, viewing him as emotional and acting on impulse, often ignoring his advisers. Because of Joe Biden’s age—at 78 years old, he is the oldest man to be elected president—some people wonder how long he will be able to bring clarity and stamina to the job. That is enough to merit bringing in others for concurrence on a momentous nuclear weapons decision, but the issue extends far beyond even these examples. No single individual, no matter how wise and temperate, should hold the sole power to potentially initiate the destruction of the world. 

In situations where the United States or its allies have been attacked with nuclear weapons, when a decision about retaliating must be made within minutes, the president should retain the sole power to authorize their use. In instances of first use, when the United States has time to decide whether to initiate an attack, the authorization to launch nuclear weapons should require the unanimous consent of the president, vice president, and the defense secretary. 

Requiring the approval of the vice president makes sense because that individual is first in the presidential line of succession. Should the president die, resign, become incapacitated, or be removed from office, the vice president assumes the responsibility for the nuclear launch codes and is presumably already familiar with the process. That would also ensure political accountability from the only other U.S. official elected by the entire nation.

Requiring the concurrence of the defense secretary is prudent for several reasons. First, the person in that position is presumed to have the necessary military knowledge to understand the utility and consequences of deploying a nuclear weapon. That individual is also presumed to understand the practicalities of armed conflict and should be involved in assessing this kind of escalation. 

Second, the use of force requires compliance with the law of armed conflict. Certainly, in the event that the United States has already suffered or faces an imminent nuclear attack, there would likely be little political resistance to the country’s use of nuclear weapons in self-defense. The trickier analysis would be the legality of the first use of nuclear weapons against an adversary attacking or thought to be preparing an imminent attack against U.S. territory, U.S. forces abroad, U.S. allies, or U.S. interests through conventional means.

Department of Defense lawyers, whether civilian or uniformed judge advocates, regularly make legal compliance assessments regarding the use of force and targeting with conventional weapons. Should the United States find itself contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, it should leverage the expertise of these lawyers. To ensure that the involvement of these lawyers is not subject to the potentially arbitrary inclinations of the defense secretary, the reform process should include a stipulation that the secretary must solicit legal counsel and share those assessments with the president and vice president. 

To the extent possible, the secretary of state, who is the most senior cabinet member, should be involved in consultations; but actual approval of the decision should rest with the president, vice president, and defense secretary. Although the secretary of state negotiates nuclear weapons treaties and monitors compliance with these agreements, the Department of State works to prevent conflict rather than to wage war. 

In the event that time is of the essence and the vice president and defense secretary are dead, injured, or cannot be contacted, the deputy secretary of defense and the next person in the presidential line of succession in the executive branch—the secretary of state—should have to make a joint decision. The goal should be to give a priority role to the official with the most direct responsibility for nuclear weapons, the defense secretary or deputy secretary. 

The gravity surrounding any potential use or even the threat of the use of nuclear weapons necessitates greater constraints on the president’s ability to authorize such action in a first-use scenario. Given that magnitude, these changes should be accomplished through bipartisan legislation. Congress should make it a priority this year.



1. Steve Herman, “Democrats Want Biden to Relinquish Sole Authority for Nuclear Launches,” Voice of America, February 26, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-politics/democrats-want-biden-relinquish-sole-authority-nuclear-launches

2. Geoff Brumfiel, “Pelosi Asks Military to Limit Trump’s Nuclear Authority. Here’s How That System Works,” National Public Radio, January 8, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/insurrection-at-the-capitol/2021/01/08/955043654/pelosi-asks-military-to-limit-trumps-nuclear-authority-heres-how-that-system-wor

3. Ernest J. Moniz and Sam Nunn, “The President and Nuclear Weapons: Implications of Sole Authority in Today’s World,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, December 2019, https://media.nti.org/documents/The_President_and_Nuclear_Weapons_Implications_of_Sole_Authority_in_Todays_World.pdf

4. Lisbeth Gronlund et al., “An Expert Proposal: How to Limit Presidential Authority to Order the Use of Nuclear Weapons,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 8, 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/01/an-expert-proposal-how-to-limit-presidential-authority-to-order-the-use-of-nuclear-weapons

5. Richard K. Betts and Matthew Waxman, “Safeguarding Nuclear Launch Procedures: A Proposal,” Lawfare, November 19, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/safeguarding-nuclear-launch-procedures-proposal

6. Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Going It Alone? The President and the Risks of a Hair-Trigger Nuclear Button,” Brookings Institution, March 1, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/03/01/going-it-alone-the-president-and-the-risks-of-a-hair-trigger-nuclear-button/

7. Bruce Blair, “Strengthening Checks on Presidential Nuclear Launch Authority,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2018, pp. 6–13. 

8. Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2019, H.R. 669, 116th Cong. (2019). 

9. Smith v. Obama, 217 F. Supp. 3d 283, 298–300 (D.D.C. 2016).

David S. Jonas is a partner at FH+H Law Firm in Tysons, Virginia. After retiring as a Marine Corps officer, where he served as nuclear nonproliferation planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he served as general counsel of the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. He teaches a course he created on nuclear nonproliferation law and policy as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and the George Washington University Law School. Bryn McWhorter graduated from the George Washington University Law School in 2021. She has studied and written on nuclear nonproliferation.

Calls have escalated for a new process requiring the involvement of multiple parties before a nuclear attack is authorized.

Is There a New Chance for Arms Control in the Middle East?

June 2021
By Marc Finaud, Tony Robinson, and Mona Saleh

Regional rivalries have long bedeviled the Middle East, and as a result, true arms control and security negotiations have never taken place. Several recent developments offer hope that the momentum for regional progress on nonproliferation and disarmament can be revived, provided some conditions are met. 

Despite the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, there are hopes that the Abraham Accords, signed at the White House last September by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, could revive disarmament efforts. (Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images)The Abraham Accords formalized new relations between Israel and several Arab countries. Talks on restoring the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), are making headway while Iran and Saudi Arabia have resumed bilateral engagement thanks to mediation by Iraq. A return to full compliance with the JCPOA by the United States and Iran could be followed by broader discussions on regional security and missile programs. 

In fact, a historic window of opportunity could be opening, all centered around the decades-old effort to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East that was relaunched by a UN conference in 2019. Any optimism must be tempered by the latest surge in fighting between Israel and Hamas, but the diplomatic building blocks of future disarmament progress may be falling into place. 

The Abraham Accords 

The Abraham Accords,1 concluded in August 2020 by Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States and followed by the normalization agreements extended to Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco with the door open for other Arab and Islamic states to join, are a potential game changer in the future of the region. Even if the main incentives for such agreements appear to be the prospect of major U.S. arms sales and an emerging coalition against Iran and despite their rejection by the Palestinians, the accords break the long-standing Arab taboo on normalizing relations with Israel. 

Indeed, the accords dealt a heavy blow to the Arab consensus on the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002,2 which conditioned normalization with Israel on the establishment of a Palestinian state. They also upended the joint Arab position on the WMD-free zone, which required Israel to get rid of its nuclear weapons at an early stage in exchange for recognition and normalization under the “disarmament first” rubric. In that sense, the accords have divided Arab states due to their negative implications for the Palestinians and the two-state solution. The recent violence between Israel and the Palestinians put the Arab signatories of the accords in an embarrassing situation, underscoring the lack of support for normalization from the Arab “street” and the non-existent leverage of the Persian Gulf countries on Israel. In fact, the current situation demonstrates the centrality of the Palestinian issue that was recklessly ignored by the conclusion of the accords.

The accords are not as detailed as the peace treaties with Egypt from 1979 and Jordan from 1994 precisely because there is no history of direct armed conflict between the states-parties to the accords and Israel. Yet, they are a signal that the region is apparently moving beyond the old Arab-Israeli conflict and away from the refusal of most Arab states to recognize or engage openly in talks with Israel. Discreet trade relations between Israel and some Gulf countries had been laying the ground for normalization for years. The accords, particularly the agreement with the UAE3, list “spheres of mutual interests,” including investment, trade, science and technology, civil aviation, tourism, and energy, but their security dimension is the dominant one. They signal a willingness to enter into a new defense relationship and eventually possibly an alliance with Israel under U.S. auspices in order to counter “the Iranian threat.” This strategic ambition was reinforced when U.S. President Donald Trump shifted Israel out of the U.S. military’s European Command and to the U.S. Central Command, which includes other Middle Eastern countries.4

Rapprochement between Israelis and Arab countries, particularly the UAE, is in full swing on various levels from exchanging diplomatic missions to agreeing to visa-free travel and cooperating on maritime and civil aviation issues. The countries are collaborating on trade and banking matters and negotiating science and innovation deals. The UAE recently announced a $10 billion investment fund for strategic sectors in Israel.5 The accelerated collaborations, particularly in the maritime and aviation fronts, open the door to strengthening the security alliance between Israel and individual Gulf countries. The Israeli defense minister recently suggested that Israel intends to develop a “special security arrangement” with new Gulf allies who share common concerns about Iran.6 

These developments are enhanced even more by the al-Ula Reconciliation Declaration of January 2021, in which all Gulf states agreed to solve the dispute between the “Quartet” (Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) and Qatar and to improve their “resistance” to Iran.7

Iran-Saudi Engagement

Recent reports about the first direct talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia since diplomatic ties were cut four years ago are extremely interesting and offer another glimpse of hope.8 They are a sign that an Iraqi mediation effort, initiated and brutally interrupted in January 2020 by the targeted killing by the United States of Major General Kassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian commander, has regained momentum. After U.S. President Joe Biden announced the end of U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen, Riyadh probably understood that, unlike during the Trump administration, it would not have everything its own way and might benefit from exploring a new political dynamic with Iran to stop a war it was not winning. 

In the last months of Trump’s presidency, there was a clear impetus, led by Washington’s Gulf allies, to form an alliance in the region, including with new “friend” Israel, against Iran. It is likely that the Biden administration will not allow that to happen if it interferes with rescuing the faltering Iran nuclear deal, a key priority for Washington with widespread security implications for the region. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait in April 2021 and his announced visit to the UAE reinforce the perception of warming ties in the Gulf and the prospects, at a minimum, of a positive impact on the conflict in Yemen where Iran is backing Houthis fighting Saudi-led forces with UAE assistance.

The Zone Itself

The question now is whether the Abraham Accords can have a direct impact on the ongoing efforts at negotiating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Despite a boycott by Israel and the United States, this process gained traction in 2019 at a UN General Assembly conference after the cancellation of the conference planned in 2012.9 When the conference, tentatively set for November 2021, reconvenes, one could logically expect a rift among states that have recently normalized relations with Israel, implicitly accepting Israel as a nuclear-armed state, and those still vocally against it. It is likely, however, that the unity of language on the zone will be preserved by the Arab League and that the accords will be largely ignored, in part because of the Arabs’ inevitable return to a more vocal pro-Palestinian stance.

It is clear that the Israeli nuclear weapons program, estimated to include 80 to 90 nuclear warheads, and its long-held policy of opacity were not on the table while the Abraham Accords were negotiated. Yet, they remain the elephant in the room. Indeed, the accords open the door for a de facto military alliance or “security arrangement,” for which the Israeli defense minister advocated, with the only nuclear-armed state in the region. Will this possible alliance be perceived by Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey as a pretext to join the nuclear arms race? Could such a military alliance cause Israel to risk its military and technological edge? Will the lucrative arms exports to Gulf countries that Israel is contemplating contribute to making those countries faithful clients, willing to ignore Israel’s nuclear capability?10 There are no easy answers at this stage.

In the 47 years since the zone project has been under discussion, the Arabs have been calling for disarmament first. In contrast, Israel has consistently advocated peace first and avoided any talk of nuclear disarmament, arguing that the regional states need to travel down a “long corridor” of concrete actions for Israel to be reassured by mutual recognition, normalization, peace, and the establishment of a regional security architecture.11 Of course, Israel can claim that threats from Iran still justify maintaining nuclear deterrence. Yet, the reality of normalization with the Gulf states, a restored JCPOA followed by regional security talks, and the prospect of Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians, which could be encouraged by Biden given the surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence, may cause Israel to feel that the long corridor has shortened after all. Such improvement in the way Israel views its threat environment is hypothetical at this point and could be significantly affected by the military exchanges between Israeli and Hamas forces, the worst violence in seven years.

The Way Forward

The new Arab-Israeli and Gulf-Iranian rapprochements should be viewed as a fresh opportunity to engage regional parties to pursue serious arms control negotiations. The moment has come to call out the Abraham Accords for what they do not say and urge their signatories to make the links among peace, recognition, and normalization with Israel more explicit and for Israel to make a serious commitment toward negotiations on a region free of weapons of mass destruction.

Although the arms deals that come with the Abraham Accords may contribute to an aggravation of instability in an already overarmed region, they do have one silver lining: they test the validity and credibility of Israel’s commitment to the long corridor approach. The international community and civil society are now in a position to challenge Israel, as the accords show that the Arabs have taken several strides down the long corridor and it is Israel’s turn to take serious steps toward disarmament given that it has already accepted, since 1980, the long-term goal of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.

The wider regional security concerns, such as ballistic missiles and the involvement of some regional states in military conflicts beyond their borders, can be discussed within the framework of the zone negotiations given that Israel and its new Arab allies share the need to enhance their own security. Israel, despite its technological advantage, nuclear capability, and alliance with the United States, still feels threatened and in need of recognition by regional states. Some Arab states feel threatened by Iran and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and need the United States as a security guarantor.

Any serious negotiations on wider regional security issues should not exclude or single out Iran. Tehran has hinted that such an inclusive framework would be acceptable once the nuclear deal is restored.12 The JCPOA is the best guarantee to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Given long-standing complaints by Israel and key Arab states that the deal does not address wider regional security issues, such as ballistic missiles or regional conflicts, they should be eager to use the UN General Assembly-mandated zone process to start multilateral negotiations on those contentious issues. 

All stakeholders have decisive roles to play. The United States must ensure that recent Israel-Palestinian violence is stopped and that the JCPOA is restored; more actively support engagement and reconciliation between parties still in conflict, such as Iran and the Arab countries, Israel and the Palestinians, and eventually Iran and Israel, in order to reduce external intervention in regional disputes; and provide security guarantees to the countries that seek them. Iran can only benefit from reintegration into a regional security framework if it does its part to restore the JCPOA. The other parties to the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union—should not only facilitate full compliance with the Iran nuclear deal but also actively support regional security talks. Israel should seize this opportunity to invest in and advance the regional security architecture it says it wants. That should at some point include peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The Arab states should seek security assurances from the United States and Israel that could avoid a nuclear arms race in the region. Finally, civil society should take advantage of this fragile rapprochement to convince their governments that the region needs less armaments and more human security.



1. See Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State, “The Abraham Accords,” n.d., https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/ (accessed May 19, 2021).

2. “Arab Peace Initiative: Full Text,” March 28, 2002, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/mar/28/israel7.

3. U.S. Department of State, “Abraham Accords Peace Agreement: Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel,” https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/UAE_Israel-treaty-signed-FINAL-15-Sept-2020-508.pdf.

4. Brian W. Everstine, “Pentagon Shifts Israel to CENTCOM Responsibility,” Air Force Magazine, January 15, 2021.

5. “UAE Announces $10 Billion Fund for Israel Investments,” The Arab Weekly, March 12, 2021. 

6. Dan Williams, “Israeli Defense Chief Sees ‘Special Security Arrangement’ With Gulf States,” Reuters, March 2, 2021.

7. Tuqa Khalid, “Full Transcript of the AlUla GCC Summit Declaration: Bolstering Gulf Unity,” Al Arabiya English, January 6, 2021.

8. “Saudi and Iran Held Talks Aimed at Easing Tensions, Say Sources,” Reuters, April 18, 2021. 

9. Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, Report of the first session, A/CONF.236/6, November 22, 2019]

10. Arie Egozi, “Israeli Defense Minister Goes Slow on Arab Weapon Sales,” Breaking Defense, April 2, 2021.

11. Eitan Barak, “The Beginning of the End of the Nuclear Age,” Haaretz, January 26, 2021.

12. Negar Mortazavi, “What It Will Take to Break the U.S.-Iran Impasse: A Q&A With Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif,” Politico, March 17, 2021.

Marc Finaud is head of arms proliferation at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. Tony Robinson is director of the Middle East Treaty Organization. Mona Saleh is a doctoral research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

Any optimism must be tempered by the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, but the diplomatic building blocks of future disarmament progress may be falling in place.

Missile Proliferation Poses Global Risk

June 2021
By Kelsey Davenport and Sang-Min Kim 

Even as world leaders raise alarms about accelerating missile proliferation, the primary multilateral initiative designed to check this trend is struggling to keep pace with the changing technologies that are making these weapons more accessible and more attractive. 

South Korea's Hyunmu-2 ballistic missile is fired during an exercise aimed to counter North Korea's nuclear test on September 4, 2017 in East Coast, South Korea. (Photo: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images.)In an April 19 statement, the nonproliferation directors for the Group of Seven (G7) countries expressed grave concern over the “accelerating proliferation of ballistic and other missile technologies, including at the hands of non-state actors.” The spread of these systems is a “threat to regional and global security,” the statement said. 

It exhorted all states to “unilaterally adhere” to the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary export control regime designed to prevent the spread of missiles and materials used for missiles that could deliver weapons of mass destruction (see page 29). 

The MTCR is credited with slowing advances in a number of programs for ballistic missiles in the years after it was created, including a joint development project among Argentina, Egypt, and Iraq, as well as missile programs in Brazil and South Africa. The regime has also prompted member states to put in place export controls on missiles and related technology. But the initiative’s consensus-based decision-making has made it difficult to admit new members and update the regime’s guidelines to adapt to new technologies. 

Moreover, new acquisitions of missiles and related materials by countries such as China, India, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States, as well as nonstate actors such as Hamas and the Houthis, pose serious challenges. 

MTCR chair Thomas Hajnoczi of Austria told Arms Control Today in a May 17 email that he sees “missile-based power projection on the rise.” An increasing number of states and nonstate actors are producing missiles or missile components, making the MTCR “more relevant than ever,” he wrote.

Hajnoczi, speaking in his personal capacity, said the MTCR needs to make a concerted effort to address these developments in order to be effective. The “proliferation of technology becomes increasingly challenging to control—both in terms of concrete goods and components, as well as knowledge knowingly or unwittingly being transferred,” he said. 

Timothy Wright, a research analyst and program administrator at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Arms Control Today in a May 17 email that the MTCR “remains a useful tool for countering missile proliferation” but the “regime is creaking in places” and reforms will be necessary to sustain and strengthen it. 

Wright said that “more states than ever possess ballistic and cruise missiles” and many are diversifying and improving their conventional missile capabilities but that it is debatable whether missile proliferation is accelerating. He noted, for example, that new types of land-attack cruise missiles were introduced at the same rate from 2000 to 2010 as from 2010 to 2020. 

As states develop new missile systems, they contribute to a risk of “proliferation through imitation,” as other states seek to acquire similar capabilities, Wright said. This trend is particularly evident among states pursuing new hypersonic glide vehicles, he added. 

The MTCR at a Glance

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a voluntary export control initiative established in 1987 to limit the proliferation of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload over a distance of more than 300 kilometers. Since then, the MTCR has expanded its mandate to cover missile systems and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of delivering biological and chemical weapons. 

The MTCR divides missile-related materials and technologies into two categories. Category I items include complete missiles, rockets, UAVs, major components of these systems, and production facilities. According to the regime guidelines, “[T]here will be a strong presumption to deny” Category I transfers. 

Category II items include specialized materials and technologies relevant to building missiles or UAVs, such as propellants. Export of these items should be considered on a case-by-case basis, given the applicability of these materials and technologies for civil uses, such as space exploration. Factors that states should take into account prior to exporting Category II items include the credibility of the stated purpose of the purchase and their potential contribution to nuclear-capable delivery systems. 

Prior to exporting any item listed in either category, MTCR members are supposed to obtain assurances that the materials in question will not be reexported and that the recipient will only use the materials for the original purpose. 

Because the MTCR is voluntary, there are no penalties for transferring controlled items outside of the approved guidelines. The United States, for instance, has transferred Category I systems to allies and partners, citing security needs. 

Initially comprising seven states, the MTCR has expanded to include 35 members.

Hajnoczi noted that not all hypersonic technology is covered by the MTCR and that could be an area for further discussion by member states. One of Austria’s priorities this year, he said, is “keeping pace with technological progress” to ensure the regime remains effective. He stressed the G7 commitment in the statement to “review the material and technology that we control . . . supporting work to update multilateral export control regime lists” and sharing expertise to address new technologies. 

Hajnoczi also cited the “unprecedented surge in interest and activity in space” that makes satellite technology more accessible. This poses a challenge because of the “substantial technological overlap between the technology used to transport satellites into space and that used to deliver weapons of mass destruction,” he said. The MTCR should work with other relevant international organizations to address this development, he said. 

The most recent annual report of the U.S. National Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee, published in January, concluded that countries “view ballistic and cruise missile systems as cost-effective weapons and symbols of national power.” Advances in missile technology also drive state interest in these systems, the report determined.

Wright also cited technical developments as a factor increasing state interest in missile systems. Developments in guidance and propulsion technologies have made cruise and ballistic missiles “more accessible and affordable” and “increased the utility of missile systems as long-range precision strike weapons and as a means of regional deterrence,” he said.

Perceived regional threats appear to be spurring missile proliferation in Asia. Taiwan, which is not a member of the MTCR, is modernizing and diversifying its missile arsenal in order to bolster its deterrence posture against China. Although Taiwan’s missile force historically contained defensive anti-ship cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles, the island has begun developing and producing longer-range missile systems. 

In January, Taiwan deployed a new cruise missile with a range of 1,200 kilometers. In addition, as Li Shih-Chiang, director of the Department of Strategic Planning in the defense ministry, stated on April 19, the U.S. AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, which has a range of more than 370 kilometers, remains on “Taiwan’s arms wish list.”

MTCR members Australia and South Korea also have been increasingly investing in their missile forces. Although MTCR members do not commit to forgo missiles and UAVs capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, their acquisition and development of these systems, sometimes with the assistance of other MTCR members, contributes to missile race dynamics. 

When South Korea joined the regime in 2001, it negotiated a new bilateral missile agreement with the United States that limited the country’s missiles to systems below the MTCR threshold, a modest extension to the range restrictions imposed by the original 1979 deal. In a series of agreements beginning in 2012, South Korea negotiated less stringent limitations on the payload and range of its missiles. (See ACT, June 2020.) Most recently, President Moon Jae-in announced May 21, after meeting with President Joe Biden, that the United States agreed to terminate the remaining restrictions. 

Australia, whose relationship with China deteriorated in 2020, announced on May 11 that its next fiscal year plan includes $212 billion over the next decade for upgrading defense capabilities, including building its own guided missiles with U.S. help.

Perceived changes in the strategic and security environment have impacted Australia’s decisions. In its 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the Australian Department of Defence reported new investments in an “enhanced integrated air and missile defence system and very high-speed and ballistic missile defence capabilities for deployed forces.” It tied the decision to the destabilizing effects of regional military modernizations, such as North Korea’s missile programs.

Nonstate actors are also pursuing missile systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. Houthi attacks using ballistic missiles on Saudi Arabia demonstrate the group’s ability “to design and manufacture missiles and UAVs domestically and their professional technical expertise,” according to the January 2021 report by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen. 

The United Nations also found evidence of Iran providing missile systems to the Houthis, which highlights another proliferation challenge, namely that as states develop new capabilities, they could choose to sell their systems, driving further proliferation. 

The G7 call for all states to adhere to the MTCR could be useful in encouraging states to adopt more comprehensive and effective export control guidelines to prevent the transfer of dual-use materials and technologies. 

Hajnoczi said that “outreach to relevant countries” is important as the MTCR and Austria seek to expand the regime beyond the current membership. The pandemic halted outreach, but he hopes to resume those efforts later this summer. 

In the past, MTCR chairs have conducted outreach visits to nonmember states to provide updates on MTCR guidelines and learn about states’ export control legislation. Recent outreach visits in 2020 and 2018 included Israel, Jordan, and Pakistan.

Austria is committed to making more information about MTCR activities available to the public when appropriate, Hajnoczi said, noting that “increasing understanding of the objectives and work of the MTCR” could be beneficial to the regime. 

Wright also expressed support for expanding membership, particularly in regions where missile production and proliferation are prevalent. Some of the more troubling missile proliferation developments are taking place in the Middle East and Asia, where few states have joined the MTCR.

Even as missile proliferation accelerates, the primary initiative designed to check this trend is struggling to stay relevant and effective.

U.S. Plutonium Pit Costs Rise

June 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Energy Department’s cost to build the infrastructure to produce new plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear warheads could be as high as $18 billion, according to a department estimate and yet-to-be-released internal estimates detailed to Arms Control Today by a congressional source. 

A technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico manipulates plutonium as part of the U.S. Stockpile Stewardship Program in 2005. Current plans call for expanding the production of plutonium pits at both Los Alamos and at the Savannah RIver Site in South Carolina. (Photo: U.S. Energy Department)The updated price tag is nearly two and half times larger than earlier projections and is likely to raise fresh doubts about the affordability of the department’s aggressive plans to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure. 

The updated estimates are not reflected in the budget plan for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that the Trump administration bequeathed to the Biden administration. That means future NNSA weapons program budget requests will require significant increases beyond current plans just to accommodate the growth in the projected cost of pit production. 

“The data shows that the last Administration sold a plan that is not executable and has left it to the Biden Administration to sort out,” the congressional source told Arms Control Today.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review proposed to increase the rate of production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year at two sites. Congress subsequently mandated production to that level in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. (See ACT, June 2018.)

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is slated to produce at least 30 pits per year by 2026 while the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is pegged to produce at least 50 pits annually by 2030. 

The Energy Department’s semiautonomous NNSA announced on April 28 the approval of the Critical Decision 1 (CD-1) milestone for the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project.

“CD-1 approval marks the completion of the project definition phase and the conceptual design,” an NNSA press release stated. The CD-1 cost estimate for the Los Alamos pit facility is $2.7-3.9 billion, with an overall project completion date range of 2027-2028, it said.

That is an increase from a preliminary estimate of $1.5-3.0 billion completed in 2015 for the 30-pit capability. The NNSA press release did not specify how the agency plans to achieve the production of at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos. 

According to the congressional source, the projected CD-1 cost to complete the pit production facility at Savannah River, which was presented to the Energy Department for a decision and has yet to be released, is $8-14 billion. In 2018, the agency had estimated that the facility would cost $1.8-4.6 billion to complete. 

The Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request published May 28 said: “The scope, cost and schedule estimates developed for the CD-1 approval package include an estimated high end of the cost range at $11.1B [billion].” It is not clear how the agency settled on this figure.

The updated cost estimate also raises questions about whether the Savannah River site can realistically produce at least 50 pits annually by 2030. Jill Hruby, President Biden’s nominee to be administrator of the NNSA told the Senate Armed Services Committee at her May 27 confirmation hearing that the 50-pit goal “is likely to, now, be somewhere between 2030 and 2035.” The budget request said that achieving that goal by 2030 “is not likely.”

The agency will set the official cost and schedule baseline for the Los Alamos and Savannah River facilities when their design is at least 90 percent complete. The Los Alamos facility is slated to reach this point in 2023. The agency has not suggested a target for the Savannah River facility. 

The Pentagon and the NNSA have offered several justifications for seeking a production capability of at least 80 pits per year by 2030. One is the need to build enough new W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads to arm the Air Force’s new ICBM, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent system. The new missile system is slated to be fielded between 2028 and 2036. 

Other justifications include enhancing the safety and security of nuclear warheads and hedging against uncertainty about the aging plutonium in the pits. The new production targets would allow the NNSA to replace all the estimated 3,800 operational warheads in the U.S. stockpile by the end of the century. 

But skeptics have raised concerns about the executability of and the need for the ambitious production plan. 

An independent March 2019 study by the Institute for Defense Analyses concluded that there is “no historical precedent” for the agency’s plan to go from the current annual production level of zero to 80 pits by 2030. “No available option can be expected to provide 80 pits per year by 2030,” the report said.

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report published last September that the NNSA “has been unable to plan for and complete major construction projects on time” and, over the past two decades, Los Alamos “has twice had to suspend laboratory-wide operations after the discovery of significant safety issues.”

“The latest cost estimates suggest [the] NNSA has done little to improve its management of major programs,” Sharon Weiner, a former program examiner with the National Security Division of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a May 19 email. 

“Given that [the] NNSA is unlikely to meet pit production goals with either facility, now is the time to reconsider pit production plans rather than commit to two budget fiascos,” she wrote.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will stick to the plan to produce 80 pits per year at two sites despite the growing price tag. 

Asked at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on May 12 if she supports the NNSA’s current approach, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm replied, “I do.” 

The rising cost of the plutonium mission comes on the heels of large spending increases on nuclear weapons programs at the NNSA over the past four years. (See ACT, March 2021.)

The ambition of the agency’s modernization program is unlike anything seen since the Cold War. Allison Bawden, a director at the GAO, told Congress in March 2020 that the federal spending watchdog is “concerned about the long-term affordability of the plans.”

The cost to build the infrastructure to produce plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear warheads could be as much as $18 billion, more than twice earlier projections.

Biden Open to Talks With North Korea

June 2021
By Sang-Min Kim

U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to engage North Korea diplomatically on pragmatic steps to end the nuclear threat and reinforced that commitment by appointing veteran U.S. diplomat Sung Kim to lead the effort.

Career diplomat Sung Kim, currently the ambassador to Indonesia, will also serve as the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, President Biden announced on Friday, May 28. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)Hosting South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on May 21, Biden told a news conference that the United States and South Korea “share a willingness to engage diplomatically with [North Korea] to take pragmatic steps that will reduce tensions as we move toward our ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Moon emphasized that pursuing North Korea’s denuclearization is the “most urgent common task” for the United States and South Korea to undertake. But in a hint of past difficulties in advancing that goal, Biden stressed that “we’re under no illusions how difficult this is.” 

North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and its stockpile of nuclear fuel has risen steadily at least since the Bush administration and roughly doubled in the past four years. It is estimated to have around 45 nuclear weapons, according to former Los Alamos weapons laboratory director Siegfried Hecker, who visited North Korea seven times between 2004 and 2010.

Kim, the new U.S. special envoy for North Korea, has been ambassador to Indonesia. Previously, he was ambassador to South Korea and also served as Obama’s special envoy to the six-party talks with North Korea. Moon praised the appointment as reflecting “the commitment of the U.S. for exploring diplomacy and its readiness for dialogue with North Korea.”

The summit took place several weeks after the Biden administration completed a review of North Korea policy. Few details have been made public.

Moon said the United States coordinated closely with his government and the resulting policy is “a very calibrated, practical, gradual, step-by-step manner, and very flexible” with the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as the ultimate objective.

The policy builds on the 2018 Singapore joint statement, which was issued after a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un and calls for the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the establishment of a stable peace there.

Given that past administrations were unable to achieve denuclearization in a single, comprehensive deal, the policy moves away from a grand bargain, which North Korea rejected at the 2019 Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, and from the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach that refused serious diplomatic engagement until North Korea changed its nuclear provocations and behavior.

After reportedly rejecting earlier Biden administration efforts to engage, Pyongyang has “well received” the U.S. offer to explain the outcome of the policy review, according to Yonhap News Agency. 

Kurt Campbell, the White House policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, stated in a Yonhap News Agency interview on May 18 that UN sanctions on North Korea will remain and continue to be enforced. China and Russia have been pushing for sanctions relief for North Korea.

The Washington Post reported on April 30 that one U.S. official stated that the United States is prepared to offer relief for specific actions.

Zhang Jun, China’s UN ambassador, said on May 3 that he hopes the United States gives more importance to diplomacy and dialogue than pressure in its new North Korea policy.

Beijing supports a dual-track approach of pursuing denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Korean peninsula.

The United States conducted the policy review in close consultation with allies Japan and South Korea, but has also been in touch with other states in the region, such as Russia, about it.

The president pledged a new diplomatic efforts to try to end the North Korean nuclear threat and named diplomat Sung Kim to lead the effort.


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