"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018

As World Order Shifts, So Does South Korean Security Policy

July/August 2023
By Seukhoon Paul Choi

With the international order in flux, South Korea is at a critical juncture. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, China’s aggressive behavior toward Taiwan, and North Korea’s transforming nuclear force posture pose distinct but interconnected challenges.

In this image from the South Korean Defense Ministry, two U.S. Air Force B-52H strategic bombers (top L) flying with South Korean Air Force F-35A (top R) and U.S. Air Force F-16 (front) fighter jets during a joint air drill in South Korea in April. South Korea is accelerating plans to deploy the F-35A and other systems to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats.  (Photo by South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)As in the cases of China and Japan, this strategic landscape has inspired changes to South Korea’s national security strategy. The administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol has adopted a defense-driven nuclear nonproliferation policy that centers on deterrence as its principal approach to risk reduction and arms control. South Korea is seeking to address the increasing threats of aggression, inadvertent escalation, and nuclear use by signaling advances in its conventional capabilities and its military cooperation with the United States. While continuing to forgo nuclear armament, South Korea is aiming to deny North Korea gaining an advantage from its expanding nuclear weapons arsenal and to shape conditions that are more conducive to a productive dialogue on arms control.

Threat Environment and Security Challenges

Rising geopolitical tensions pose multiple security challenges for South Korea. Host to a U.S. joint force presence of nearly 30,000 troops, South Korea likely would be implicated in any major regional conflict that involved the United States. South Korea is within China’s anti-access area-denial perimeter and is situated closer to China’s Northern Theater Command than Washington D.C. is to Boston. Joint exercises by China and Russia within South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone, their force presence in the eastern and western seas, deployment of space and cyberwarfare capabilities, and increasing support for North Korea underscore South Korea’s precarious environment.

These challenges compound the acute threat that North Korea poses. South Korea’s most populous cities are within range of nearly 6,000 North Korean artillery systems. An unrestrained North Korea continues to build increasingly sophisticated missile capabilities and delivery platforms for its proliferating nuclear arsenal. The regime has simulated nuclear strikes on South Korea. It has displayed long-range missiles in sufficient volume to overwhelm U.S. homeland missile defense systems and challenge the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments to South Korea. The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has rejected explicitly the possibility of denuclearizing the country without the global elimination of nuclear weapons.1 Instead, it has declared its determination to grow exponentially its arsenal of theater nuclear warheads and to develop a rapid intercontinental counterstrike option.

Through enactment of its 2022 Nuclear Forces Policy Law, North Korea also has adopted a nuclear first-use doctrine that lowers the threshold for employing such weapons on the Korean peninsula. Previous laws specifically limited the role of North Korean nuclear weapons to deterrence and messaged conditional restraint of use against non-nuclear-weapon states. Now, vague conditions have been set to allow North Korea to use nuclear weapons preemptively, including to seize the initiative in conventional contingencies, to end a protracted conflict, and even to respond to a catastrophic political or economic crisis.2

The perceived threat of nuclear weapons to South Korea also has increased with a recognition of the various ways that they can be used across the timeline of crisis and conflict. Interpreting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear weapons use as having influenced the type and pace of support that the United States and other countries have provided Ukraine, North Korea and China may view these weapons as enabling them to manage escalation. Such nuclear threats are now more likely to be considered effective in limiting conventional support to a country from its allies. This would make the shadow of nuclear weapons a conventional force multiplier, shifting the balance of non-nuclear forces in a conflict and reducing the strategic advantage that alliances may provide.

In addition to influencing escalation dynamics, nuclear threats may mitigate the political impact of operational defeat and lead to more favorable terms in conflict termination negotiations. In a major war, nuclear threats may provide insurance for regime survival. Mutual vulnerability between Russia and the United States is likely to be understood by North Korea as explaining the absence of U.S. threats to end the Putin regime. This understanding can be expected to strengthen North Korea’s resolve to expand its capacity to conduct a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland.

Such a capability need not threaten complete destruction to be effective. Neither parity in arms nor in vulnerability is necessary to achieve the desired political effect. Establishing reasonable confidence in a limited but survivable nuclear second-strike capability may be sufficient for North Korea to curb threats to its regime. Strategically aligned with South Korean efforts to counter the North Korean nuclear threat, U.S. declaratory policy states that any North Korean nuclear attack would result in the regime’s end. The dynamics of the Russian war on Ukraine are likely to strengthen North Korea’s focus on expanding its arsenal so that it can inspire a degree of U.S. restraint similar to how the United States treats Russia and China.

These trends in the strategic environment are exacerbating South Korean concerns about the design and operation of its alliance with the United States. Russia’s war in Ukraine provides sobering reminders of similarities between South Korea and Ukraine. South Korea is a non-nuclear-weapon frontline state, lacking its own strategic depth but constituting such for the United States and partner countries. As in the case of Ukraine, this may inspire differences in perspective among partners on approaches to deterrence and waging war. Concerns about a conflict escalating to expand geographically likely will vary depending on whether a country’s defense strategy entails deploying forces to fight a conflict away from its shores or whether a country is already the battleground, as in the case of South Korea. As with Ukraine’s decision to give up its post-Soviet nuclear arsenal in return for security assurances, a major factor in South Korea’s policy of forgoing nuclear armament has been U.S. security guarantees, including a commitment of credible nuclear deterrence.

South Korea security considerations are affected by the fact that the primary strategic priority of the United States is China. Here, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in June. (Photo by Leah Millis/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)South Korea’s status as a U.S. treaty ally inspires greater confidence in the U.S. security commitment than Ukraine enjoyed and in Washington’s readiness to back this guarantee with the full range of its capabilities, including nuclear weapons. Seoul appreciates that the forward deployment of U.S. forces to South Korea, as well as broad economic cooperation and the depth of its people-to-people ties with the United States, underwrites the U.S. commitment to support South Korea’s defense. Seoul also recognizes, however, the inherent uncertainty of future U.S. political leadership and decision-making. It understands that when faced with resource constraints, the primary strategic priority of the United States is competition with China.

These considerations inspire nuanced fears of abandonment that are a factor in South Korea’s threat assessments. There is a persistent concern that the potential reelection of former President Donald Trump or the election of someone with a similar foreign policy outlook will result in the reduction or elimination of U.S. military support for South Korea. In any less extreme shift of U.S. political leadership, South Koreans generally have high confidence in the credibility of U.S. defense commitments. Nevertheless, there is growing concern, regardless of U.S. administration, about the U.S. willingness to assume greater risk, including a potential nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland, to deliver military support at the level and speed that South Korea may deem necessary for effective deterrence and defense in a crisis. Simply, it is less a question of whether the United States will come to the defense of South Korea than of when, how, and with what means it will do so in an environment of increasing risk.

This uncertainty about the nature of U.S. support is derived in part from the understandable U.S. focus on China, as well as the need to consider the risks of opportunistic aggression and of simultaneous conflicts. Discourse on “strategic discipline,” or the need for near-singular U.S. concentration on the challenge of China’s revisionism, highlight for South Korea the potential constraints on U.S. support in contingencies on the Korean peninsula.3 South Korea would rely on assets from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and support from other U.S. combatant commands in any major contingency on the peninsula, and it fears that the United States may be reluctant to fully meet its commitment to South Korea as it seeks to ensure readiness against potential Chinese action in the Taiwan Strait. Similarly, South Korea must prepare for a scenario in which the United States is already engaged in a conflict with China and North Korea considers this an opportunity to conduct its own attack. Although sharing U.S. concerns about confronting two near-peer nuclear adversaries in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific region, South Korea understands that it and the United States also must prepare for simultaneous intraregional crises.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats and war against Ukraine are influencing thinking on defense by South Korea, among other states. Here, Ukrainian troops train on Leopard 2 tanks at a test site in May.  (Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)Finally, even if the United States has the political will to deliver military support to South Korea, there is growing concern about its capacity to do so in the near term due to defense supply chain challenges. As a result of the Russian war in Ukraine, diminishing stockpiles have required the United States to “borrow” 500,000 artillery shells from South Korea.4 To assist Ukraine in its fight against Russia, the U.S. Department of Defense also has sought to draw from U.S. military stockpiles prepositioned on the Korean peninsula for potential contingencies there.5 The United States is expanding its defense manufacturing capacity, but creating new sources of production will take time. Further, even when such conventional stocks are available for deployment, shortfalls in strategic lift and increasingly contested logistics pose significant challenges to the timely provision of such support.6

Drivers of Change

These threats and challenges have inspired a redesign of South Korea’s security strategy. Whereas the former Moon administration pursued an engagement-driven nonproliferation policy, that of the Yoon administration is led by defense. This change reflects a need to respond pragmatically to past and ongoing limitations to nuclear nonproliferation efforts and to the growing threats that South Korea faces. South Korean policy aims to convince North Korea that, despite its nuclear proliferation, its weapons will be “unusable” as coercive tools enabling lower-level conventional aggression or ordnance detonated in theater as part of an attack.7

South Korea’s prioritization of and design for deterrence aims to reduce the risk of an emboldened nuclear-armed North Korea acting aggressively, as well as to establish favorable conditions for arms control diplomacy that would limit the utility and negotiating leverage of these weapons. In addition to strengthening its own non-nuclear strategic capabilities, South Korea is working with the United States to increase the credibility of a combined alliance deterrence posture.

South Korea’s military drones fly in formation during a joint military drill with the United States in Pocheon in May.  (Photo by Yelim Lee/AFP via Getty Images)The government of President Moon Jae-in pursued dialogue with North Korea as a means to establish inter-Korean peace and denuclearize the peninsula. It balanced engagement with defense efforts, implementing a vision of “peace through strength” that invested heavily in bolstering South Korea’s advanced conventional capabilities. It also worked to make its forces and its alliance with the United States appear less threatening to North Korea. It muted deterrence signaling, such as shows of force. It reduced the scope and scale of combined theater-level exercises with the United States, relabeled these efforts to emphasize a focus on defensive training, and ceased the work of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultative Group, which advanced policy coordination to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat. Through engagement, the Moon administration aspired to demonstrate its reconciliation-focused agenda and to reduce the risk of conflict by lowering tensions. It sought to facilitate dialogue between North Korea and the United States aimed at détente and denuclearization. The Moon government also forged a Comprehensive Military Agreement with North Korea, through which the two countries adopted behavioral arms control and confidence-building measures.

The Yoon administration has continued efforts by the Moon administration and the conservative governments that preceded it to strengthen South Korea’s sovereign defense capabilities, while remaining open to diplomacy with North Korea to advance denuclearization and improve inter-Korea relations. In a significant shift from the preceding government, however, the Yoon administration is prioritizing a strengthened deterrence posture in response to the transformed security challenges facing South Korea. This approach emphasizes that in addition to building a more robust military, active signaling of defense capabilities is required to counter the perception of new advantages that adversaries may now harbor.

Expanded drills; defense cooperation with the United States, Japan, and other partners; the deployment of increasingly capable advanced conventional forces; and overt messaging about increased readiness are intended to disabuse North Korea of the belief that its nuclear arsenal would protect it from prompt, cost-imposing responses if it were to attack. This defense-led approach deliberately assumes certain risks, including raising tensions that could trigger conflict. The Yoon administration’s strategic rationale is that clear communication about South Korean and alliance capabilities will be more effective at averting North Korean aggression than engagement-led appeasement. Also, scaling back South Korean armaments or military preparedness would do little to pacify North Korea as it would still fear attack by the United States.

To support this enhanced emphasis on deterrence, South Korea is striving to transform the posture that wages it. As in the past, this entails strengthening South Korea’s advanced conventional capabilities and its defense cooperation with the United States. To counter North Korea’s nuclear threat, the Yoon administration has accelerated plans to develop or acquire and deploy capabilities, such as military surveillance satellites, F-35A radar-evading fighters, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles, and GBU-28 earth-penetrating bombs, that strengthen South Korea’s Kill Chain, Korea Air and Missile Defense, Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation [3K] System. It is working to establish a non-nuclear joint operational “Strategic Command” aimed at more effectively operationalizing this 3K system, including by exploiting precision, synchronization, and advanced missile technologies to penetrate North Korea’s underground bunkers and target the regime.

The 3K system is designed to deter North Korean nuclear attacks through response options across the continuum, from imminent threat to post-use. The advancing nuclear and missile posture of North Korea poses increasing challenges, however, to early warning and effective missile defense, which are essential for responding to an imminent or in-flight nuclear threat. This has increased the significance of having a survivable second-strike strategic deterrent, whether through the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation component of its 3K system or a credible “effective and overwhelming” response from the United States.

To avoid North Korean perceptions that it can use nuclear blackmail to coerce one ally to restrain the other, South Korea seeks strategic redundancy in its alliance with the United States by developing non-nuclear strategic capabilities. The South Korean-U.S. alliance sends additional signals that even if North Korea were to launch a crippling attack against South Korea, it would face a regime-ending reprisal from the United States. Related to this are South Korea's efforts to become more integrated in U.S. nuclear weapons planning and operations, which would enhance mutual understanding, force readiness, and thus the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Against a regime that has demonstrated little regard for the life of its people, this messaging, whether through a South Korean, U.S., or combined alliance-and-partner show of force, is tailored to threaten North Korea’s leadership.

The Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation concept is explicitly designed as a response to a North Korean nuclear attack. The South Korean military capabilities for ending the North Korean regime would be conventional. This post-North Korean nuclear use caveat and the conventional nature of the concept highlight the misunderstandings reflected in criticism by policy analysts that the concept signals a disproportionate response and is to blame for increasing inter-Korea tensions.8 Relatedly, some South Korean strategists and defense experts prefer this type of conventional action over a U.S. nuclear response. That is because they expect any nuclear use to be indiscriminate, causing collateral damage and postuse contamination that would impact not only subsequent military operations but also life for all Koreans on the peninsula after the conflict.

In addition to emphasizing the 3K system and retaliation concept to deter a North Korean nuclear attack, South Korea’s accelerated development of its missile capability is seen as a way to prevent inadvertent escalation while denying North Korea’s use of nuclear threats to manage it. South Korea lacked limited options to respond effectively to North Korea’s 2010 attack on Yeonpyeong Island. The only military option Seoul had at the time was to conduct air strikes that required a larger mobilization of supporting forces and escalation with greater risk of being perceived as a prelude to war. South Korea continues to develop an effective response to North Korea’s lower-level aggression under the shadow of nuclear threats with measured escalatory responses that impose significant costs but limit the risk of misperception. There is a common perception in South Korea that only nuclear weapons can deter nuclear use, and this inspires concern about the limitations of South Korea’s advanced conventional capability in countering North Korea’s nuclear threat. Discourse about developing a South Korean nuclear arsenal has become pervasive because there is growing doubt that North Korea will denuclearize and increasing concern about the potential for coercive use of its nuclear weapons.

It is important to acknowledge the real defense concerns driving this debate. Advocates for South Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons do not seek to end the country’s alliance with the United States, but rather to see South Korean nuclear weapons become a means to strengthen the combined deterrence posture of the alliance. Further, contrary to some commentary, South Korean support for nuclear armament is not due to some nationalist desire to be part of a “nuclear club.”9 South Korea’s national pride is based on its technological prowess, successful democratization, and the increasing global appeal of its culture. Both its nuclear armament discourse and evolving defense policy reflect a perceived need to address failures of the nonproliferation regime to prevent and now to constrain a growing North Korean nuclear threat.

South Korea’s pursuit of advanced conventional strategic capabilities and of strengthened U.S. nuclear deterrence through greater alliance integration reflects Seoul’s enduring support for the nonproliferation regime. This is in spite of the regime’s failures with respect to North Korea, growing concerns about the threat environment, and domestic support for South Korean nuclear armament. Critical to South Korea maintaining this approach will be efforts to advance non-nuclear strategic deterrence and to strengthen the credibility of U.S. security guarantees, including its nuclear umbrella. The spirit of the “Washington Declaration,” recently agreed by Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden, reflects an appropriately balanced effort in support of addressing real security challenges through enhanced deterrence and nonproliferation.10 As a statement from the two leaders, it has deterrent value because of the political commitment it reflects and the cohesion it messages. How faithfully it is implemented will determine its enduring significance.



1. Yoonjung Seo, Larry Register, and Heather Chen, “North Korea Declares Itself a Nuclear Weapons State, in ‘Irreversible’ Move,” CNN, September 9, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/09/asia/north-korea-kim-nuclear-weapons-state-law-intl-hnk/index.html.

2. Jun Bong-geun, “Comparing North Korea’s Nuclear Forces Policy Laws,” Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, November 21, 2022, https://www.apln.network/analysis/commentaries/comparing-north-koreas-law-on-nuclear-forces-policy-2022-with-the-law-on-consolidating-the-position-of-nuclear-weapons-state-2013; Ellen Kim, “North Korea States It Will Never Give Up Nuclear Weapons,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, September 9, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/north-korea-states-it-will-never-give-nuclear-weapons.

3. “Strategic discipline” is a term used to advocate for the United States to focus on its competition with China and strategic challenges, as well as to avoid involvement in other conflicts.

4. Hyonhee Shin, “South Korea to Lend 500,000 Rounds of Artillery Shells to U.S.,” Reuters, April 12, 2023.

5. David Choi, “Moving U.S. Military Stocks From South Korea for Ukraine Leaves No Readiness Impact, Pentagon Says,” Stars and Stripes, January 20, 2023, https://www.stripes.com/theaters/asia_pacific/2023-01-20/military-stockpiles-south-korea-ukraine-8826947.html.

6. Jan Tegler, “Air Force Under Pressure as Airlift Capacity Falls,” National Defense, June 3, 2022, https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2022/6/3/air-force-under-pressure-as-airlift-capacity-falls.

7. Hong Jaesung, “Kim Tae-Hyo ‘Despite North Korea’s Possession of Nuclear Weapons, Deterrence Will Make Them Unusable,’” Yonhap News, October, 21, 2022, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20221121117300504 (in Korean).

8. Doyeong Jung, “South Korea’s Revitalized ‘Three-Axis’ System,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 4, 2023, https://www.cfr.org/blog/south-koreas-revitalized-three-axis-system.

9. Jeffrey Robertson, “The (South) Korean Nuclear Threat,” Australian Institute of International Affairs, April 13, 2023, https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-south-korean-nuclear-threat/.

10. The White House, “Washington Declaration,” April 26, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/04/26/washington-declaration-2/.


Seukhoon Paul Choi is principal advisor at Stratways Group, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Seoul. From 2013 to 2018, he was a strategist and international relations specialist for the UN Command and the Combined Forces Command in South Korea.

The Yoon administration has adopted a defense-driven nuclear nonproliferation policy that centers on deterrence.

Toward Verifiable Definitions of a Nuclear Weapon

July/August 2023
By Alexander Glaser

Defining a nuclear weapon is difficult. At first, this observation may seem counterintuitive given the unique nature and unmatched destructive power of nuclear weapons, but previous attempts to agree on a definition have emphasized the physical processes that occur once such a weapon is used.

These phenomena and effects cannot be verified, for example, during an inspection. Unsurprisingly, nuclear arms control agreements generally have avoided defining a nuclear weapon altogether even when they sought to limit the deployed numbers of these weapons or manage their proliferation.1 For more than 30 years, wapons and verification experts have tried to find an answer to this question.

The plutonium cores of the Trinity Device tested in New Mexico on July 16, 1945 (shown here) and the “Fat Man” nuclear weapon that destroyed the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 (below) were insertable, primarily for safety reasons.  (Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)A different path to achieve this goal is possible. First and foremost, it would be timely and important to agree on a verifiable, broadly supported definition of what is not a nuclear weapon. This is by no means a trivial task, but one in which nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states actively could engage, even today. Verification of several possible future arms control measures can be supported by such a negative definition, including the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from entire geographical regions, verification procedures relevant for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and verified limits on total stockpiles.

A Brief History of Definitions

One of the earliest legal definitions of a nuclear weapon appears in the Modified Brussels Treaty of 1954, by which the Western European Union was established and West Germany undertook “not to manufacture in its territory atomic, biological and chemical weapons.” Annex II of the treaty includes definitions for these weapons, including defining an atomic weapon as “any weapon which contains, or is designed to contain or utilise, nuclear fuel or radioactive isotopes and which, by explosion or other uncontrolled nuclear transformation of the nuclear fuel, or by radioactivity of the nuclear fuel or radioactive isotopes, is capable of mass destruction, mass injury or mass poisoning.”2

Most other attempts to define a nuclear weapon have referred similarly to the capability of explosive energy release, its ability for mass destruction, or its possible use for warlike purposes. For example, the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco, which establishes a nuclear-weapon-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean, defines a nuclear weapon as “any device which is capable of releasing nuclear energy in an uncontrolled manner and which has a group of characteristics that are appropriate for use for warlike purposes.”3 Other nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaties have continued to use definitions that are, in essence, equivalent to the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Most recently, the glossary of key nuclear terms agreed by the working group of the five nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, first issued in 2015 and expanded in 2022, describes a nuclear weapon as a “weapon assembly that is capable of producing an explosion and massive damage and destruction by the sudden release of energy instantaneously released from self-sustaining nuclear fission and/or fusion.”4

All these formal definitions, spanning a period of more than 60 years, have one major problem: they are de facto unverifiable because an inspector cannot confirm the very characteristics that are used to define a nuclear weapon itself. The topic reemerged, implicitly, in the early 1990s, when specialists from Russian and U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories initiated then-unprecedented discussions on the verification of warhead reductions. The talks were focused on how to confirm that a declared item was a genuine warhead, with the goal of devising methodologies that would protect sensitive design information. Unfortunately, these efforts ended before a broad consensus on concepts, definitions, and verification approaches was reached. In any event, it appears that such a conversation today would need to involve additional participants, such as China but ideally also other nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, to lay the basis for broader future arms control and disarmament efforts.

What Is Not a Nuclear Weapon

Despite the long-standing, persistent challenges of verifiably defining a nuclear weapon, even when using concepts such as templates or attributes, a work-around has proven valuable in the context of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The goal is to confirm the absence of a nuclear weapon or, in other words, define what is not a nuclear weapon. Under New START, parties declare the number of warheads deployed on a missile that is accountable under the treaty, and additional items that may be present during an on-site inspection must be shown to be “non-nuclear objects.”5

The New START procedures to confirm the non-nuclear nature of an object rely on gross neutron counts. Such measurements work for weapons that contain kilogram quantities of plutonium, but weapons that contain uranium only would have negligible neutron emissions and cannot be detected by the procedures developed for New START. Concepts to confirm the absence of uranium-based weapons have been proposed, but they have not been fully demonstrated and require further analysis.6

Building on the New START model, an explicit definition of an object that is not a nuclear weapon could be as simple as this: “An object is accepted not to be a nuclear weapon if (a) it does not exceed an agreed neutron or gamma radiation level or (b) the inspector can confirm its nature as a non-treaty-accountable item, for example, through direct visual access.”

There are many ways to draft such a negative definition, and there will be trade-offs between simplicity and specificity. It is not the intention here to provide a definitive formulation, but a reference to the absence of nuclear radiation appears important.

One major challenge will be agreement on criteria for an inspectable “object” and, in particular, on a minimum size of such an object. New START largely avoided this dilemma by focusing on deployed weapons, namely objects located on the front section of ballistic missiles, but an agreement that seeks to confirm the absence of nuclear weapons anywhere at an inspected site or in a geographical region could not as easily dodge this question. For example, there could be concerns that a party stores nuclear weapons partly disassembled. Indeed, the nuclear components of the first implosion-type nuclear weapons—“Gadget” and “Fat Man”—were inserted only hours before the use of those weapons, and early postwar weapon designs also had removable nuclear components.

Depending on the scope of future arms control agreements, key nuclear components such as those used in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki (shown here) and in the Trinity Device (above) could be considered “treaty accountable” or “prohibited” even when they are separate from the main body of the weapon. (Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)In the 1980s, there were proposals to reintroduce such “clip-in” or “insertable” warheads into the U.S. stockpile, perhaps for lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons, a prospect considered an “arms control nightmare” by some analysts.7 The negotiators of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty ended up banning all intermediate-range missiles, nuclear and conventional, thus avoiding possible ambiguities and complications with regard to verification. Ultimately, if the absence of nuclear weapons is to be confirmed with some reasonably high confidence, it may be necessary to consider for inspection even relatively small objects. Some items used for civilian or military research purposes may not automatically pass an absence test and may only be “cleared” after a visual inspection.8

Absence measurements such as those proposed here have important advantages. The instruments and measurement techniques are relatively simple, sensitive information does not need to be protected, and measurements do not require any form of information barrier. Moreover, inspector access to relevant sites could be much easier overall because sensitive nuclear items should not be present. Verification approaches based on such measurements may be the most promising path forward for nuclear arms control efforts in the medium term, especially given the current mistrust among nuclear-weapon states, which could make more intrusive approaches unrealistic.

Although confirming the non-nuclear nature of an object has already proven useful as part of New START, other types of agreements could similarly rely on this concept of negative definitions. In that regard, two possible directions for nuclear arms control are presented below.

Zero Deployment or Regional Removal of Nuclear Weapons. One can imagine future agreements that require parties not to have deployed nuclear weapons in storage facilities near military bases with airfields or delivery systems. This could help prevent inadvertent escalation of a crisis and would be particularly meaningful in Europe.

The core of such a zero-deployed arrangement, as first proposed by researchers at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, would be the transfer of nuclear warheads associated with nonstrategic delivery systems to a small number of storage facilities, either in the same host country or elsewhere.9 Confirming the absence of nuclear weapons at those former deployment sites could become a key verification task, and it could be implemented using a negative definition as proposed above.

This scenario would also become relevant once a country that previously hosted nuclear weapons joins the TPNW. Such a country would have 90 days for the removal of those weapons,10 which would likely be followed by verification procedures to be agreed by the TPNW states-parties.

Confirming Numerical Limits on Total Stockpiles. It is often assumed that arms control agreements eventually could place limits on all nuclear weapons in the stockpiles, including those in storage and perhaps those slated for dismantlement, so that the gap between existing weapons and those captured by arms control regimes gradually can be closed.11 Such agreements could be bilateral or multilateral and have separate ceilings for different parties or even envision nonbinding declarations to discourage major nuclear buildups over short periods of time.12 The most basic approach to confirming numerical limits as part of such an “all-warhead agreement” is to rely solely on baseline declarations followed by regular data exchanges. In this case, during an on-site inspection, the host would get credit for the number of items declared for that site and identify those items as such. These declared items could be accepted as treaty-accountable items and never accessed or inspected.13 The inspectors would then be allowed to confirm that other items available at the site are in fact not treaty accountable using the concepts discussed above. If an object does not pass the absence test, it simply could be considered a treaty-accountable item. Taken together, the required verification activities and technologies could be relatively simple and nonintrusive even though such an all-warhead agreement would represent a major milestone in nuclear arms control.

Looking Further Ahead

Negative definitions can go a long way in supporting nuclear arms control and disarmament. If they can be agreed, it is unlikely that more specific definitions will be needed in the foreseeable future, even under the most optimistic circumstances. Ultimately, however, positive definitions may be considered preferable to support specific reduction efforts. For example, nuclear-weapon states tend to deploy only a few types of weapons at any given time.14 It is possible that negotiators may find it useful to constrain arsenals by warhead type, that is, to gradually phase out and eliminate specific types of weapons while allowing others to remain in the stockpiles. In this case and following a more traditional verification approach, warheads that are subject to reductions or removals could be inspected prior to dismantlement to confirm their identity.

Indeed, research since the 1990s has focused on unique characteristics or attributes of nuclear weapons that can be confirmed with radiation measurements. This led to the introduction of a series of concepts that are still being researched today and include, in particular, templates, attributes, and information barriers.15 Unfortunately, these concepts and approaches have introduced new challenges: The data acquired in these measurements are highly sensitive, and information barriers to protect these data have proven difficult to certify and authenticate. Significant progress has been made over the years in overcoming some of these technical challenges,16 and efforts have included several international collaborations and original research at governmental laboratories and universities.17 A sustained research and development effort should be able to demonstrate the concepts and technologies needed, even for such verification approaches involving warhead inspections.

It is also possible, however, that radiation measurements for warhead inspections in an arms control setting will always remain elusive, most likely for political reasons. As argued previously, radiation measurements on sensitive nuclear items are not needed for some verification approaches relevant for the removal of nuclear weapons from specific regions and for verified stockpile limits.18 Indeed, if warhead inspections remain a persistent source of controversy among parties, it may be possible to avoid them altogether, even in scenarios in which there are deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals.

Despite the current crisis of nuclear arms control, it may be beneficial to address some of these questions soon. In fact, jointly exploring verifiable warhead definitions and relevant inspection approaches, while acknowledging concerns with regard to access and intrusiveness, may be more amenable than directly discussing even more complicated topics at this time, such as the scope of possible treaties.



1. Most famously, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does not define a nuclear weapon even though the term is used throughout the treaty text. The issue of defining a nuclear weapon rose to the top of the agenda as recently as 2020, when the United States and Russia last discussed the possibility of a warhead freeze. Michael Gordon and Ann M. Simmons, “U.S., Russia Near Deal to Extend Nuclear Treaty and Freeze Warheads for a Year,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2020.

2. Modified Brussels Treaty, October 23, 1954.

3. Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, February 14, 1967, 634 U.N.T.S. 9068.

4. P5 Working Group on the Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms (Beijing: China Atomic Energy Press, 2015); P5 Working Group on the Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, “P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms, 2015 Edition,” n.d., https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/243293.pdf.

5. Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, April 8, 2010, https://www.acq.osd.mil/asda/ssipm/sdc/tc/nst/annexes/inspection-activities/index.html (annex on inspection activities).

6. Eric Lepowsky, Jihye Jeon, and Alexander Glaser, “Confirming the Absence of Nuclear Warheads via Passive Gamma-Ray Measurements,” Nuclear Instruments & Methods in Physics Research, Vol. 990 (February 21, 2021).

7. Fred Hiatt, “Insertable Nuclear Warheads Could Convert Arms,” The Washington Post, June 15, 1986.

8. One example is the so-called BeRP Ball, which contains 4.5 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium. The solid sphere was machined in 1980 and has been used for thousands of radiation measurement experiments.

9. Pavel Podvig and Javier Serrat, “Lock Them Up: Zero-Deployed Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons in Europe,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2017, https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdfs/lock-them-up-zero-deployed-non-strategic-nuclear-weapons-in-europe-en-675.pdf.

10. First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Report of the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” TPNW/MSP/2022/6, July 21, 2022. See Moritz Kütt and Zia Mian, “Setting the Deadline for Nuclear Weapon Removal From Host States Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2022): 148-161.

11. James Fuller, “Verification on the Road to Zero: Issues for Nuclear Warhead Dismantlement,” Arms Control Today, December 2010; Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, Monitoring Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear-Explosive Materials: An Assessment of Methods and Capabilities (Washington: National Academies Press, 2005).

12. Amy Nelson and Michael O’Hanlon, “Putin’s Treaty Withdrawal Doesn’t Spell Doom for Arms Control,” The Hill, March 7, 2023.

13. Similarly, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification has introduced the concept of “items declared as weapons.” International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification (IPNDV), “Working Group 4 Deliverable,” June 2019, pt. II, http://www.ipndv.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04
(“Potential Options for Declarations on Nuclear Weapons”).

14. The United States currently has seven types of warheads and bombs in its arsenal, which is many fewer than during the height of the Cold War. Similarly, France is believed to deploy three warhead designs today, and the United Kingdom only has one. It is likely that Russia retains a more diverse arsenal of nuclear weapons, but a trend to consolidate that stockpile could exist, especially in the absence of explosive nuclear testing since the 1990s.

15. Office of Nonproliferation Research and Engineering, U.S. Department of Energy, “Technology R&D for Arms Control,” Spring 2001, https://www.ipfmlibrary.org/doe01b.pdf.

16. For more information, see IPNDV, “Related Resources,” n.d., https://www.ipndv.org/relatedresources/ (accessed June 22, 2023).

17. The U.S. Department of Energy has recently expanded its research in this area via the new Arms Control Advancement Initiative. Jill Hruby, Remarks at the 16th Annual Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century Symposium, May 26, 2022, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-administrator-hrubys-remarks-16th

18. Alexander Glaser, “Monitoring Regimes for All-Warhead Agreements,” in Toward Nuclear Disarmament: Building Up Transparency and Verification, ed. Malte Göttsche and Alexander Glaser (Berlin: German Federal Foreign Office, May 2021).


Alexander Glaser is co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University and an associate professor in the university’s School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.


Answering the question, what is a nuclear weapon, could help in verifying future arms control agreements.

The Unknowns About China’s Nuclear Modernization Program

June 2023
By Fiona S. Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thin Margin for Error

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

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

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

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

A Changing Nuclear Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inferring Motivations From Capabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assuring Robust Retaliation

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

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

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

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

New Ambitions?

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

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

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

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

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

Leaders and Advisers

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

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

The Challenges of Ambiguity

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

36. Fravel, Active Defense, ch. 8.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

June 2023
By Yuki Tatsumi

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

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

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

A Turn for the Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

The U.S. Factor

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

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

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

Modernizing Japan’s Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenges Ahead

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Biden’s New Policy: Can Human Rights Reshape U.S. Conventional Arms Transfers?

May 2023
By Rachel Stohl, Loren Voss, and Elias Yousif

The United States accounts for 40 percent of the global arms trade, a greater market share than the next four closest competitors combined, including Russia and China.1

In 2019, as part of a controversial arms deal with the Trump administration, the United Arab Emirates was approved to purchase General Electric engines for a version of the F-16 fighter jets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Lotz)Although many of the tens of thousands of weapons that Washington exports abroad each year flow to like-minded partners with commendable human rights records, many end up in the hands of governments engaged in conflict, accused of civil and human rights abuses, or found to be undermining U.S. interests. Such transfers have long cast a shadow on the U.S. commitment to international human rights and raised questions as to the wisdom and morality of enabling the predatory or destabilizing behaviors of questionable partners.

Two critical elements in the Biden administration’s new conventional arms transfer policy have the potential to chip away at this dilemma and reshape the U.S. approach to arms transfers, with an explicit emphasis on restraint and a higher human rights standard for arms transfer assessments.2 These are laudable ambitions, but achieving them will not be easy. Engendering an ethos of restraint in U.S. arm transfers will require confronting long-held misconceptions about the strategic risks of restricting transfers to questionable partners, while implementing a higher human rights standard requires a far more robust information ecosystem and analytical process for decision-makers.

Shaping Arms Transfers

An arms transfer policy is established by a presidential directive intended to outline the key aims and considerations that shape the whole-of-government approach to arms transfers. In addition to defining the priorities and criteria for security cooperation decision-making, the policy is a tone-setting document, sending a signal across the government and beyond regarding the spirit of the U.S. approach to arms sales and the role of arms sales in foreign policy and national security objectives.

Although the policy has been rewritten three times in the last nine years, prior to 2014 no update had been made since the Clinton administration in 1995. The Obama administration’s policy, which was the first rewrite in nearly two decades, was seen as an effort to align the U.S. approach to arms transfers with new geopolitical and geostrategic considerations in the post-Cold War world and to meet the imperatives of the global war on terrorism better.

The Trump administration’s 2018 policy emphasized counterterrorism and nonproliferation priorities that reflected a continued focus on efforts to defeat al Qaeda and associated groups, but it also made a dramatic shift toward a more economically oriented “Buy American” and “America First” approach. It placed economic security considerations front and center, even more than its predecessors, and sought to enable the U.S. government to sell more weapons more quickly with less restraint and less conditionality. The policy made an important contribution by addressing civilian harm for the first time by establishing that the executive branch had a policy of facilitating ally and partner efforts to reduce the risk of national or coalition operations causing civilian harm. Nevertheless, the prioritization of economic considerations helped justify a number of arms sales that defied human rights and civilian protection concerns, as well as public and congressional opposition, including highly controversial sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in 2019.3

With the aim of distinguishing its human rights commitments from those of its predecessor, the Biden administration made clear that a revised policy that rightsized human rights considerations was one of its early priorities, something that was keenly anticipated by the arms control and human rights communities. Although there are many welcome updates in the new policy, the commitment to restraint and the announcement of a higher human rights standard that will apply to arms transfers are among its most notable developments.4

Relatedly, the administration promised that a change to the current U.S. position rejecting the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which establishes common standards for the international trade of conventional weapons and seeks to reduce the illicit arms trade, would result from a new conventional arms transfer policy. Unfortunately, the new policy has not clarified the U.S. position or resulted in renewed engagement with the ATT.

Definitions of Civilian Harm and Protection of Civilians

Civilian Harm includes conflict-related death, physical and psychological injury, loss of property and livelihood, and interruption of access to essential services.*

Civilian Casualties is a more narrowly focused term referring to deaths and injuries of civilians by armed conflict.

Protection of Civilians is a broader term that includes all efforts to reduce civilian risks from physical violence, secure their rights to access essential services and resources, and contribute to a secure, stable, and just environment for civilians over the long term.**

*Sahr Muhammedally, “A Primer on Civilian Harm Mitigation in Urban Operations,” Center for Civilians in Conflict, June 2022.

**U.S. Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, “Protection of Civilians Military Reference Guide, Second Edition,” January 2018.

The ‘If We Don’t Sell, Someone Else Will’ Paradigm

The Biden administration’s commitment to restraint in the U.S. approach to security cooperation is likely to be met with a familiar rebuttal: “If we don’t sell them arms, someone else will.” This well-worn refrain reflects a long-standing assumption in U.S. security cooperation policy that countries cut off from the U.S. arms trade will turn quickly to other suppliers, including U.S. adversaries, for their defense needs, thereby eroding a key source of U.S. global influence. Recent analysis suggests, however, that this argument, which frequently has been used to justify arms transfers to countries engaged in human rights abuses or behaviors contrary to U.S. interests, fails to account for the complex set of circumstances that shape decision-making by arms importers.5 If the Biden administration is serious about its commitment to restraint, it must dispel misconceptions embodied by the “if we don’t sell” myth that distort policy choices and encourage an ever more permissive approach to arms transfers.

The global arms trade is far from an abundant buyer’s market, and an importer's historic preference for a given patron creates a degree of dependency that adds risks and costs to seeking alternative suppliers or diversifying its sources for materiel. Although countries have elected to incur those risks and costs in some cases, the factors shaping those decisions are far more complex than implied by “if we don’t sell.”

Simply sourcing a comparable capability can be challenging, especially for highly sophisticated systems such as advanced aircraft or air defense systems. Domestic production may be technically or financially beyond reach or logistically impractical, importers may face a coordinated policy of denial among allied exporters, and producers may be few in number or belong to incompatible geopolitical or ideological blocs. Similarly, integrating new systems into existing defense architectures introduces new burdens on importers, requiring costly capital investments in parallel or alternative logistics, training, sustainment, and doctrine.

In many cases, the nature of the importer's immediate security environment can add to the risks and costs of seeking alternative suppliers. For countries facing acute security threats, the time and potential readiness gaps associated with adopting and integrating alternative platforms or pivoting away from a primary supplier could jeopardize defense planning imperatives or interoperability with a preferred partner.

Beyond the practical concerns, important political and diplomatic considerations must be weighed for importers considering a transition to alternative suppliers. For the United States in particular, arms transfers are understood as signaling more general political support for a partner. For countries whose pivot to an alternative supplier might disrupt the broader relationship with the United States, the signal of interest divergence between the importer and Washington and the perceived loss of U.S. support could have serious consequences that extend beyond the particular arms in question.

Additionally, the “if we don’t sell” concept raises questions about another foundational premise in the U.S. security cooperation enterprise, namely that arms transfers are an important source of U.S. influence and leverage among recipient countries. If a country can so easily switch from one arms provider to another, it would seem unnecessary for an importer to make any sacrifices, accept any conditions, or bend to the will of a patron for the sake of preserving an essentially fungible arms relationship. In short, concepts surrounding “if we don’t sell” and arms as a means of influence, both of which are foundational principles in U.S. security cooperation, are in some ways incompatible, but continue to drive arms transfer decisions. Perhaps more importantly, the “if we don’t sell” premise betrays a troubling shallowness in many U.S. security partnerships. If a partner so casually would elect to turn to one of Washington’s strategic competitors for its defense needs or to develop deeper defense ties, that suggests a problematic misalignment of interest and perspectives that raises questions about the strategic value of the relationship in the first place.

In this context, assumptions embodied by the “if we don’t sell” concept risk inflating the likelihood and associated risk of a partner’s transition to an alternative defense supplier. Similarly, the argument offers very little space for the consideration of the potential benefits of disassociating from security relationships with countries that are engaged in abusive behaviors and have only a tenuous alignment of interests with the United States. In so doing, the argument distorts the sense of available policy options and risks incentivizing an ever more liberal approach to arms transfers without sufficient regard for the strategic returns or the consequences for civilian protection, good governance, and international peace.

Human Rights and Civilian Protection

Although international humanitarian law, human rights, and civilian harm mitigation have been featured in past policies, the Biden administration’s directive introduces a new approach for assessing and, in some cases, prohibiting a specific arms transfer on the basis of a stricter human rights standard.

The relevant section states,

[N]o arms transfer will be authorized where the United States assesses that it is more likely than not that the arms to be transferred will be used by the recipient to commit, facilitate the recipients’ commission of, or to aggravate risks that the recipient will commit: genocide; crimes against humanity; grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, including attacks intentionally directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such; or other serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, including serious acts of genderbased violence or serious acts of violence against children. This assessment shall include consideration of the available information and relevant circumstances, including the proposed recipient’s current and past actions, credible reports that the recipient committed any of the above violations, and other information related to the overall capacity or intention of the recipient to respect international law.

Compared to the two previously issued policies, this new prohibition makes three important changes. First, the level of certainty required to deny an arms transfer is reduced from “actual knowledge” to a “more likely than not” determination that the arms will be used to commit, facilitate the commission of, or aggravate the risk of international law violations. Second, the scope of negative impacts is expanded from the recipient using the arms transferred to commit violations of international law to include situations in which the arms transferred would facilitate the commission of or aggravate the risk that the recipient will commit violations of international law. Finally, the policy explicitly requires the inclusion of specific types of information in the assessment process.

Women visit the graves of people reportedly killed during the war in Yemen at a cemetery in Sanaa during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in April. Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. arms client, has been fighting the Houthis in Yemen since 2015. The war has killed thousands of people and sparked the world's worst humanitarian crisis. (Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)In order to determine whether an international law violation is more likely than not to occur, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Commerce, or a combination of departments, depending on the authority under which the proposed transfer would occur, will need to develop a more robust and expansive risk assessment regime. To carry out an effective assessment, government officials will need guidance on how to incorporate the new broader considerations into their deliberations, including whether an arms transfer will facilitate or aggravate the risk that the recipient will commit violations. This will require a significantly expanded analysis of the recipient’s security forces. For example, one could easily argue that providing a military unit with arms that would allow it to better control territory could aggravate risks if a separate domestic security force was known to detain and torture individuals because that separate force would have access to more civilians over a larger territory. Therefore, the assessment conducted by the relevant U.S. agency will need to include information and analysis on any risks in the state requesting the arms, not just the specific unit or force that would receive the proposed arms.

For a potential arms recipient to be judged more likely than not to misuse the weapons, the new policy stipulates that the assessment examine “the proposed recipient’s current and past actions, credible reports that the recipient committed any of the specified violations, and other information related to the overall capacity or intention of the recipient to respect international law.” These categories could be applied in a three-element test covering current and past actions, capacity, and intention. If the recipient state meets any of the elements, one could assess that the threshold is met.

Evidence of relevant past and current actions would include credible reports or allegations that operations were conducted with malice or reckless disregard or gross negligence toward civilians or other protected individuals. Such actions must be systematic or more than one-time events. In addition, the recipient state would be judged on whether it had taken effective steps to bring the responsible offenders to justice. If it had not, then the threshold likely would be met.

Critics opposed the Biden administration's $997 million sale of  AH-1Z attack helicopters and others weapons to Nigeria in 2022 because of the government's human rights record, among other reasons. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Chad J. Pulliam)In terms of the capacity category, the relevant security force or unit of that force would be judged on whether it had the capacity or had a significantly inconsistent capability to employ the requested arms in a lawful and effective manner. If it did not have the capacity or had a significantly inconsistent capability, the threshold likely would be met. Alternatively, if the security force was judged as not having the command and control structure needed to meet its legal obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law, then the threshold also would likely be met.

The final category concerns intention, specifically judging whether it is the deliberate purpose of the recipient state to employ the arms to commit or facilitate the commission of an act that is a violation of international law as specified in the policy. The review should be that of general intent rather than a specific intent to commit or facilitate commission of a certain action at a specified time. Additionally, the recipient state does not need to have knowledge that a certain action would be a violation of international law as long as there is intention to commit or facilitate the forbidden action, such as targeting civilians or torturing prisoners.

Incomplete Data

In order to conduct this assessment adequately, the relevant U.S. department will need information that, under current practice, is not always collected or made available in a systemic way. For example, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor annually produces a volume titled “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” which can provide some insight into human rights violations, but frequently does not have the level of detail needed to determine which specific forces commit violations or the causes of such violations.6 As a result, although the report would be helpful to the arms transfer policy analysis, it would not be sufficient.

The Defense Department’s 2022 Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan recognized this deficiency in information and reporting processes. It required the department to develop procedures and a framework to “to assess, monitor, and evaluate the ability, willingness, norms, and practices of allies and partners to implement appropriate civilian harm mitigation and response practices” and to ensure the assessments are used to shape and implement security cooperation programs, many of which include arms transfers. It also called for the formulation of guidance on responding to reports of civilian harm by ally or partner forces from governmental and nongovernmental sources. Nongovernmental organizations and civil society regularly collect and report on information that would be valuable to the type of assessment required by the new arms transfer policy.

All of this information, even if adequately collected by these disparate sources, needs to be readily accessible to the relevant individuals who review and approve arms transfers at each U.S. department that has arms transfer authority. It must be available for review on a regular basis, but not necessarily in every case.

Despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi continues to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who has been waging war on domestic opponents since 2011. Thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced, including this girl at the Sahlat al-Banat camp in northern Syria. (Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)U.S. officials have said they were already frequently if not always applying a higher standard to arms transfer decisions than the previous “actual knowledge” standard. Even if true to some extent, this higher standard is not yet applied through a methodical, standardized process. The National Security Council should provide clear guidance on how to collect the relevant information and apply this standard, even if such guidance varies depending on the mechanism for transfer and the types of arms transferred. Additionally, the results of such analysis should be memorialized in a standard written document and made available for future reference in similar situations, such as tactical training for the same state or transfers to other states with similar risks.

Developing a standardized process for analysis by building out the three-element test and documenting the results in an easy-to-reference written document will set the stage for effective implementation of the new human rights standard. In order to successfully conduct the assessment, proactive steps must be taken to gather information from relevant U.S. agencies, the press, international organizations, and civil society and then ensure the resulting document is readily available to all U.S. officials who have a role in approving or denying arms transfers. Without such an approach, the much-touted human rights focus of the new policy likely will be only messaging with no noticeable difference in actual arms transfers.

The Importance of Implementation

Although the new policy is a step in the right direction of ensuring U.S. foreign policy reflects the country’s values and goals, the actual positive effect or lack thereof should be measured by its implementation. A policy on its own does not guarantee change. A Government Accountability Office report in 2019 compared conventional arms transfer policies from the Trump administration and the Obama administration and found that the two directives did not result in any notable changes to processes for reviewing proposed arms sales.7 If the Biden administration wants its policy to be more than strategic messaging, additional guidance and new processes are needed. Realizing the high-minded aspirations of this new directive will require critical reflections on ill-conceived strategic concepts, as well as more concrete guidance on applying the new human rights standard.

Time will tell if the changes in rhetoric will take root in practice and shape the practicalities of the U.S. arms trade. In particular, it will be important to watch for concrete changes in terms of arms trade decisions, human rights due diligence, and decisions to suspend, curtail, or condition certain arms transfers.



1. Pieter D. Wezeman, Justine Gadon, and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2022,” SIPRI Fact Sheet, March 2023, p. 2, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2023-03/2303_at_fact_sheet_2022_v2.pdf.

2. Executive Office of the President, “Memorandum on United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, National Security Memorandum/NSM-18,” February 23, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2023/02/23/memorandum-on-united-states-conventional-arms-transfer-policy/; John Chappell and Ari Tolany, “Unpacking Biden’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” Lawfare, March 2, 2023, https://www.lawfareblog.com/unpacking-bidens-conventional-arms-transfer-policy.

3. Jesus Rodriguez and Matthew Choi, “Trump: Saudi Arabia Would Turn to Russia, China If U.S. Ends Arms Sales Over Missing Journalist,” Politico, October 11, 2018; Zachary Cohen and Betsy Klein, “Trump Vetoes 3 Bills Prohibiting Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia,” CNN, July 24, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/24/politics/saudi-arms-sale-resolutions-trump-veto/index.html.

4. Restraint was also a theme and explicit criterion in the Carter administration’s 1977 conventional arms transfer policy.

5. Elias Yousif, “If We Don’t Sell It, Someone Else Will: Dependence & Influence in US Arms Transfers,” Stimson Center, March 30, 2023, https://www.stimson.org/2023/if-we-dont-sell-it-someone-else-will-dependence-influence-in-us-arms-transfers/.

6. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” n.d., https://www.state.gov/reports-bureau-of-democracy-human-rights-and-labor/country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/ (accessed April 19, 2023).

7. U.S. Government Accountability Office to Senator Robert Menendez, “Conventional Arms Transfer Policy: Agency Processes for Reviewing Direct Commercial Sales and Foreign Military Sales Align With Policy Criteria,” GAO-19-673R, September 9, 2019, pp. 7–8, https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-19-673r.pdf.


Rachel Stohl is vice president of research programs at the Stimson Center and director of the Conventional Defense Program. Loren Voss is a nonresident fellow in the program. Elias Yousif is a research analyst in the program.

The new policy is a step in the right direction but implementation is the real test.

The ATT at 10: The View From Mexico

India, one of the world's five largest arms importers, is among the countries that have not joined the Arms Trade Treaty. This Rafale fighter jet, which participated in a U.S.-India military exercise in West Bengal in April, is among the weapons acquired from France. (Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images)
May 2023
By Alejandro Alba Fernández

Ten years ago, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was adopted by the UN General Assembly with the promise to establish common standards for the international trade in conventional arms in order to reduce the terrible human consequences caused by the illegal, irresponsible transfers of these weapons.

Tragically, in the years since the treaty came into force, the illicit arms market has not been contained. On the contrary, diverse research indicates that the trade has grown as unauthorized actors across the globe continue to profit from weapons at great human cost. The diversion and illicit trafficking of arms remains a serious problem that affects international peace and security, destabilizes countries and regions, cripples development, and causes excessive violence and unacceptable human suffering.

On this anniversary, it is worth asking whether the ATT has fulfilled its objectives. Although significant progress has been achieved in the institutional consolidation of the treaty, there is still a long way to go to assess its overall success. As recent years have demonstrated, there is a worrying inertia in terms of new states acceding to the treaty and states-parties meeting their reporting and transparency commitments. To fulfill the treaty’s promise and meet the pressing challenges of a world awash in conventional arms, states-parties and other supporters must place greater emphasis on improving practices and transparency in the arms trade, including strengthening schemes for preventing diversion, improving export risk assessments, and ensuring mechanisms for the verification of authorized uses and end users.

National Control Systems

One method of measuring overall ATT compliance is the establishment of national control systems. Article 5 of the treaty obliges states-parties to maintain such systems, which must include a national arms control list and clearly identified, competent national authorities and designated focal points to facilitate and expedite the exchange of information on matters related to implementation.

Although most ATT members have reported having national control systems, little is known about how they work, whether they are effective, and whether they are regularly updated. For example, the updates of national authorities involved in implementing the treaty and the national contact points are useful for addressing practical aspects of cooperation and information exchanges. Even so, more attention on this matter is needed.

National control systems must be effective and applicable to all arms imports and exports in such a way that they prevent the authorization of treaty-prohibited transfers.1 To ensure this objective, exporting countries, before authorizing a transfer, must establish risk assessments that allow them to evaluate in an objective, nondiscriminatory manner the potential of that weapon to undermine peace and security or to be used to commit crimes of international concern. Exporting countries, in collaboration with the importing state, also must take measures to mitigate any risk of this nature.2

Risk Assessments

State-parties must carry out risk assessments before authorizing a treaty-covered arms transfer and perhaps afterward if new, relevant information comes to light. In some cases, legal arms transfers have ended up in the wrong hands in conflicts in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, and other countries and are an indicator that exporting countries need to do more to improve their risk assessments.

Although this evaluation is one-sided—carried out by the exporting state—it cannot be a mechanical exercise, and the role of the importing state should be better defined. The assessment must be exhaustive, objective, and on a case-by-case basis. It must include information provided by the importing state and analyze all relevant factors, including compliance with international law and international humanitarian law by the importing state, diplomatic reports on the security and political situation in the importing country, and an evaluation of the potential that the weapons may be used to carry out illegal acts or to facilitate serious acts of violence. In this regard, risk assessments should give greater consideration and weight to the provisions of Article 7.4, which establishes criteria to avoid transfers that facilitate gender-based violence.3 This is extremely relevant because, in armed conflict, women and girls are disproportionally affected by arms violence.

Carried out seriously and under the parameters required by the ATT, risk assessments could lead to the denial of an arms transfer. The treaty refers to information that is provided by the importer, but nothing prevents a third state from providing additional information that helps to properly inform risk assessments. This is especially important when dealing with data that document detected or suspected diversion that has affected the state providing the information.

Preventing Arms Diversion

ATT states-parties involved in arms transfers are obliged to prevent their diversion.4 Although this is a fundamental obligation, it is not uncommon that weapons that were legally transferred to one country later appear in another, fueling conflict and violence.

The Conference of the States Parties is the vehicle for promoting information exchanges and practices to prevent, mitigate, address, and eradicate arms diversion among ATT members. Dialogue among the parties characterized by good faith, respect, and collaboration is the basis for achieving the ATT objectives.

It is a cause of concern, however, that despite the fact that there is an online platform for the exchange of information among ATT member states and states that have signed but not ratified the treaty, it largely has been disregarded. Some members argue that before using the platform, it is necessary to determine the type of information that can be shared. Others stress that technical and confidentiality criteria, which so far have not been addressed, must be considered first. The result is that this mechanism has not been effective for the exchange of information that is necessary to analyze and combat cases of illegal arms transfers.

The Diversion Information Exchange Forum, active since 2022, is the most recent promise within the ATT framework to prevent and combat arms diversion. The forum is the first mechanism of its kind that seeks the exchange of technical and operational information to identify and combat suspected or detected cases of diversion and illegal arms trafficking.

To strengthen trust among members, only the participation of states-parties and signatories is contemplated for now due to the sensitivity and confidential nature of the information that is meant to be shared in the forum. Civil society has questioned this format, and in the near future, the forum should consider including other stakeholders that have very relevant research and information that could contribute to analyzing cases. Given the creativity of arms traffickers, it is necessary for the conference to monitor constantly the effectiveness of its mechanisms and encourage the parties to adapt their national regulations and laws as necessary to prevent, combat, and reduce the risks of diversion; tighten risk assessments; and improve mitigation measures in the process of authorizing arms transfers.

Strengthening Reporting

States-parties are obligated under Article 13 to submit initial and annual reports on arms exports and imports. In recent years, however, compliance has weakened: Fewer annual reports have been submitted, fewer have been submitted on time, several countries have not submitted their annual and initial reports at all, more states have made their reports nonpublic, and more states are excluding information considered sensitive for security and commercial reasons and are reporting aggregate data that make independent analysis difficult.5

These are alarming trends given that a fundamental treaty obligation is not being fulfilled adequately. This has consequences for the analysis of flows of arms transfers globally and regionally, the building of trust among treaty states-parties, international cooperation, and the effective implementation of the treaty. In terms of the risk assessments exercise, the information contained in these reports can help to support decisions to grant or revoke arms transfer licenses and even facilitate the identification of possible cases of arms diversion. In addition, weak reporting related to the ATT undermines its overall compliance vis-à-vis other arms control instruments.

It is too early to draw definitive conclusions about these trends. The global pandemic may have affected the ability of states to submit reports. Developing countries in particular still face difficulties in submitting treaty-required reports. In some cases, only a single official is filing reports to comply with a number of other international and regional arms control regimes besides the ATT, or officials charged with reporting responsibilities lack capabilities. There are also challenges to collecting information from diverse governmental agencies and, in some instances, a lack of political commitment to their obligation to submit reports.

More attention should be devoted to the subject of reporting and to the development of measures that can address legitimate concerns and solve structural problems. The treaty’s working group on transparency and reporting is developing initiatives and tools to encourage reporting and to improve the quality of reporting by including more useful and relevant information in them. Some tools developed by the working group are an outreach strategy led by the conference president that would engage states-parties and drive home the importance of meeting their ATT reporting obligation, a voluntary peer-to-peer project to help states-parties with the preparation of reports, a guidance document on the annual reporting obligation, and an online reporting tool posted on the ATT website.

The working group recently updated the reference templates for the initial and annual reports. These updates are timely and pertinent because they seek to resolve inconsistencies, errors, doubts, and omissions in the submitted reports. Although use of these templates is voluntary, because the treaty establishes the obligation to report without specifying the manner of reporting, they are widely used and facilitate the work of members. The working group also promotes the use of the information exchange platform located on the ATT website and the possible development of an online database that could facilitate the search and cross-checking of information contained in the reports that are submitted in compliance with the treaty.

It is essential to continue efforts to support and encourage timely, meaningful reporting and to support states-parties that face difficulties in meeting their obligations. The ATT Voluntary Trust Fund is a valuable resource that can support projects aimed at developing and improving reporting capacities. States-parties not in compliance with the reporting requirements should consider using the fund.

Also, the Diversion Information Exchange Forum can facilitate the exchange of practical and operational information that helps to deal with detected or suspected diversion cases. For regions such as Latin America and the Caribbean, where there are no formal channels for exchanging information among national governments to prevent diversion and the regional mechanisms focused on illicit arms trafficking have had few results, the forum represents an opportunity to exchange information among the countries at the regional and subregional levels.

Toward Greater Participation

As the number of conflicts around the world continues to increase, many major arms exporting and importing countries are not yet parties to the treaty. Notable absences include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Some of the countries that have joined the treaty in recent years are Afghanistan, Andorra, Canada, China, Lebanon, the Philippines, and São Tomé and Príncipe, which is encouraging given the geographic diversity and the countries’ profile in the arms trade. Currently, the treaty has 113 states-parties; 28 states that have signed the treaty but have not ratified it; and 54 states that remain outside the regime.6

Only eight years after the treaty entered into force, a significantly high number of countries have ratified it as states-parties, and that is definitely a positive accomplishment. For the ATT to achieve its objectives, however, the participation of all states is required.

Moreover, in recent years, the trend of new treaty accessions has decreased (fig. 1). Although there were more than 30 annual ratifications in the early years, in the last two years the growth was very modest, with one country in 2021 and two in 2022.7

This should not be interpreted as a lack of support for the treaty. It is logical that, in the early years, a large number of countries would join the new regime. Yet, this trend means that achieving new ratifications and accessions in the future will require more focused actions, a medium- or long-term perspective, and sustained efforts to address the reasons and challenges that have prevented more accessions.

For example, some countries do not consider the treaty a priority instrument or do not see the potential benefits of joining it. Others believe that membership would imply disproportionate burdens because they must fulfill other reports for several other arms control regimes. Some countries believe that before joining the treaty, they must establish or develop their national arms control systems and the legal framework that ensures their implementation. Other states simply believe that the treaty does not respond to their strategic interests.

It is striking that the Asia-Pacific and African regions, the two that suffer the most from the armed violence associated with diversion and illicit arms trafficking, historically report the lowest numbers of ATT states-parties.8 Achieving universal treaty membership requires particular attention to these regions.

States-parties should increase efforts at expanding treaty membership. Germany and South Korea, the current chairs of the working group on universalization, have proposed a constructive approach to develop medium- and long-term plans, focus outreach efforts and resources on underrepresented regions, and enlist treaty-supportive states to advocate for more accessions and ratifications in their regions. Special attention also should be given to engaging major exporters and importers, which set the trends in the global market, as well as to using the support of regional and subregional organizations.

Over the years, several international actors and civil society organizations have played a crucial role in favor of universalization through awareness campaigns and providing legal and technical assistance to countries that are considering joining the ATT. These efforts should receive more visibility and support by states-parties in political and financial terms. Above all, the best way to get more accessions is to demonstrate that the treaty works.


The Mexico Example

Mexico faces a great problem with the illegal entry of roughly half a million weapons annually through its northern border. Most of the weapons end up in the hands of criminal groups, inflicting untold suffering on the population. Combating diversion and illicit arms trafficking is a priority that Mexican foreign policy addresses in various international forums, most notably the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

The treaty has helped Mexico to visualize and raise awareness about challenges and consequences of diversion and illicit trafficking of conventional weapons, promote standards for responsible international arms trade, and take advantage of its provisions on international cooperation to exchange information and consult on best practices in an effort to prevent and combat these illicit trafficking cases. In this regard, Mexico's general evaluation of the treaty is positive, although it recognizes the challenges the treaty faces and is therefore involved actively and purposefully
in improving the treaty’s operational processes.

Mexico played an active role in the adoption of the treaty, its entry into force, and the efforts in favor of universalization and effective implementation. The first conference of states-parties, chaired by Mexico in 2015, established the general basis of the bodies that monitor
the application of the ATT.

Mexico’s role in the ATT is reflected in the activism of its delegations; in the continuous work that it carries out along with other actors, including governments and civil society organizations, to promote its effectiveness; and in its participation in the treaty governing bodies. It has held relevant positions within the institutional structure of the treaty, such as the regional vice presidency of the Eighth Conference of States Parties, chair of the forum on the exchange of information on diversion, the co-chair of the working group on transparency and reporting, and member of the ATT Voluntary Trust Fund selection committee.

As co-chair of the working group, Mexico promoted the creation of the forum, believing that this will help to create the necessary conditions for open and direct exchanges among the members. It is essential to ensure that this mechanism is effective.

Mexico has also underlined the responsibility that states have to ensure that the weapons that transit through their territories are not used to commit serious crimes and that the states are not in violation of their obligations under international law. It has promoted the treaty’s synergies and complementarities with other international and regional arms control regimes, such as the UN Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Traffic in Small Arms and Light Weapons, the Protocol on the Control of Firearms, the Wassenaar Arrangement, and the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives.

Although Mexico has a strict national arms control system and systematically submits its reports to the ATT, more can be done to ensure full compliance with its obligations in the domestic domain. These steps would include more transparency in the way the country implements the ATT and manages the licensing process. It would be useful to know how the country carries out its risk assessments, what factors are taken into account, and whether it has experienced challenges in preparing its reports and improving the quality of information they contain. Mexico should encourage more of its technical, licensing, and enforcement officers to participate in the Conference of States Parties and its preparatory meetings, so that they can share experiences in the detection of illicit transfers and diversion of arms that end up in the hands of criminal groups.

Mexico must continue contributing to the efforts to ensure the effective implementation of the ATT because it is a case study in all the elements needed to achieve a more responsible international arms trade. That is not an easy task, given the obscure interests pursued by the different actors involved in diversion and illicit arms trafficking, but it is a moral and ethical imperative for the innocent victims who suffer every day from the impacts of armed violence.—ALEJANDRO ALBA FERNÁNDEZ


1. Pursuant to Article 6 of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), arms transfers that violate UN Security Council resolutions or other international obligations or that take place with the knowledge that the weapons could be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, or other war crimes typified in international agreements are prohibited. Arms Trade Treaty, April 2, 2013, 3013 U.N.T.S. 269, art. 6.

2. Ibid., art. 7.

3. Ibid., art. 7.4.

4. Ibid., art. 11.

5. For trends in ATT reporting, see Arms Trade Treaty Baseline Assessment Project, “Taking Stock of ATT Reporting,” Stimson Center, August 2022, https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Report_Taking-Stock-Web.pdf.

6. Arms Trade Treaty, “Treaty Status,” n.d., https://thearmstradetreaty.org/treaty-status.html?templateId=209883 (accessed April 25, 2013).

7. Dumisani Dladla, “Arms Trade Treaty: Status of Participation,” February 15, 2013, https://thearmstradetreaty.org/hyper-images/file/ATT%20Secretariat%20-%20Status%20of%20Participation%20(15.02.2023)/ATT%20Secretariat%20-%20Status%20of%20Participation%20(15.02.2023).pdf.

8. As of May 31, 2020, the regions with the lowest number of ATT members were Africa (27 of 54 countries), Asia (eight of 14), and Oceania (five of 14). Europe (39 of 43 countries) and the Americas (26 of 35) have a higher regional proportionality of states-parties. See “State of the Arms Trade Treaty: A Year in Review June 2019–May 2020,” ATT Monitor 2020, n.d., https://attmonitor.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/EN_ATT_2020_State-of-the-ATT.pdf.


Alejandro Alba Fernández, a member of the Mexican Foreign Service, served as chair of the Arms Trade Treaty Diversion Information Exchange Forum in 2022 and co-chair of the treaty’s Working Group on Transparency and Reporting from 2019 to 2021. The author's opinions are his own and may not reflect the positions of the government of Mexico.

In its first decade, the Arms Trade Treaty has established itself but new memberships have slowed and the illicit arms market continues to flourish.

OPCW at the Crossroads: A Talk With the Chair-Designate of the Fifth Chemical Weapons Convention Review Conference

May 2023

This discussion with Henk Cor van der Kwast took place on March 21 and was hosted by the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition and the Arms Control Association in advance of the Fifth Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) Review Conference, scheduled for May 15–19. Paul Walker, coalition chair, asked questions and fielded those from the audience. This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Henk Cor van der Kwast, shown here in 2021, is the chair-designate of the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention, scheduled for May 15 at The Hague.  (Photo by Dean Calma / IAEA)Paul Walker: You've recently come from the 102nd CWC Executive Council meeting. It was quite lively and had some interesting statements by a couple dozen of the state-parties. There's also been the open-ended working group, headed by the Estonian ambassador, Lauri Kuusing, who has been active in considering what results we want out of the fifth review conference.

Henk Cor van der Kwast: I think it's very important to have these talks because the review conference will be difficult. I have no illusion on that, and I don't want to hide it. At the same time, it's quite important because the fourth review conference, in 2018, did not end with a result. So, I think that puts more pressure on us to have a result this time with which the [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] OPCW can act in the future and address its new tasks.

The OPCW is at a crossroads. We have had quite a number of good developments, and I am referring to the destruction of the chemical weapons stockpile in the United States later this year and to the new Centre for Chemistry and Technology, which gives us a lot of possibilities for further cooperation, for verification, but also in a wider international cooperation. Another thing is the addition of [central nervous system-acting] agents to the OPCW list. I'm also referring to the [OPCW] reports on [chemical weapons use by] Syria. I think the last one on Douma was quite an important one. It was an excellent report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team. I'm also referring to chemical use cases in the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and the Russian Federation, where Novichok was used. It's important to address those cases and give follow-up to that.

The last point I want to mention from the international framework is the current situation we have in the UN Security Council. What we see is that the Security Council is paralyzed because of one member using its veto more than ever. I've forgotten how many times, but it's quite a number. It's not serious dealing with international politics. At the same time, we've seen that Russia is trying to use the United Nations as a podium for other things. We will have a presentation this week on the abduction of children, whereby the Russians want to give what they call their side of the coin, and they use the UN for that. Having said that, I think it is at the same time fairly important not to have this as a sort of anti-Russian discussion, but to have the central question be, How can we strengthen the OPCW with the new challenges? What I see as most important is that there is a balance between verification on the one hand and international cooperation on the other hand.

The CWC, after all, is an arms control organization, and that should be the starting point. We should see how we can help other states by implementing the convention in the first place, protecting their borders, and protecting them against possible threats of chemical weapons. There are also good developments in that field. The issue of chemical weapons and terrorism, which was shared by the ambassador of South Africa, is a very good example where we have initiative from one group, which is really helping the organization further.

With regard to the presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the review conference, we are still in discussion with the OPCW Technical Secretariat about how we can enlarge the possibilities for having NGO presentations. It's always a little bit difficult to get the OPCW from the pattern they have used over the last four and a half years to a more open pattern because for the right reasons, they're fairly careful, which is good. But we insist that it's very important to have a good and open exchange.

Walker: Terrorism and terrorist use of chemical weapons has been a big topic of discussion. It’s obviously related to the Russian assassination attempts in 2018 and 2020 and to the innumerable alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria by the Syrians, but also by ISIS. Will there be any specific resolution proposed at the review conference, perhaps strengthening national implementation or looking more closely at trade and precursor chemicals or other issues, to try to limit the availability of toxic chemicals to national and subnational groups?

Van der Kwast: Yes. There’s a bit of drive, as it was explained to me by several members of the African group, particularly because of ISIS, [which] is very active in northern Africa. There is a serious fear that that might be something that could be used. The other thing is protection. For us, the most important thing is implementation of the convention. Training programs can help, but most important is things like border control. How can we help you to do that? How can we exchange information as different states? Having read the report by the committee on terrorism, I think there are a number of good recommendations, which we can work on. I think it's also important because the report comes from the African group, which is very active at the moment in the OPCW. It's important to continue that engagement. It would be important to have a number of recommendations included in the review conference conclusions.

Walker: Is the goal of the conference to have a final consensus document and an actual vote on a final report or just a chairman's report?

Van der Kwast: That's the central question. My intention is to see how much we can do, and I will do the utmost to have a consensus report, because if you have a consensus report, the effect is the best. Having said that, it's important to realize that if we would have a very meager consensus report—for instance, if there would not be a fairly clear reference to Syria—I mean, what's the value of such a report? So, it is for member states to decide that. As most of you will know, there has been a [preparatory study] on the different possible outcomes of the CWC review conference. I thought that was a good report, and I welcomed it very much because it gave the different options. There are a number of states who say, “Well, there is only one option, and that's the consensus report.” I think there are indeed different possibilities, but we have to concentrate absolutely on a consensus report first and to see how far we get.

I am, for the moment at least, somewhat hopeful. What we have seen so far is, thanks to Ambassador Kuusing, who has done a marvelous job, very transparent, a lot of consultations with all groups sitting down, trying to incorporate as much as he could from the different groups. So, what we have on the table now as a report from the open-ended working group is quite good, but the job is not finished. We will still have some creative talks, and we'll have to see how that is balanced.

Walker: Will the size, quality, and capability of the inspectorate be raised? This is a concern as the end of the declared chemical weapons stockpile destruction winds down. The inspectorate, which used to be over 200 inspectors, now is down to 100 or so. Going forward, we need a strong and capable inspectorate that can surge quickly for challenge inspections and the like. Has that issue been raised?

Van der Kwast: Yes, that has been raised by different countries, as well as by the secretariat. As you say, there's a serious shortage, and it will only get worse. That is also related to the fact that there is a tenure policy of seven years, which often in practice means that if somebody is here for five or six years, they start looking around and if they get a good offer, they disappear to somewhere else. Particularly for inspectors, it's quite important because it takes time to train them. So, one of the things is to see whether we could have a more flexible tenure policy for inspectors, because it's so fundamental.

The other issue related to that is geographical distribution. That's a question that is brought up particularly by the Latin American group. They want to see something there also in the review conference. We have already discussed this in the open-ended working group. We will continue to do so and see if we can find certain solutions for that. We should get more people from those regions, but we should maintain quality because merit is fundamental for people in the OPCW.

Walker: If the review conference does not generate a consensus strategic outcome document, there will not be another opportunity until 2028, leaving potentially a gap of 14 years without a strong strategic document. That is an important point to make with regard to finding consensus at the end of the meeting.

Van der Kwast: I share that absolutely.

Walker: When chemical weapons use is alleged, the CWC is reliant on states-parties to request an investigation or clarification. There is no route available for an alleged use to be addressed if states-parties do not raise the issue directly. Will there be any consideration given at the review conference to finding a means for such issues to be discussed formally and even actions taken by the OPCW Technical Secretariat.

Van der Kwast: It's a very good point. This was raised in relation to the cases in Iran, where the schoolgirls were poisoned and there was also, according to the authorities, a clear link with chemical gases. It was discussed by different states-parties, but obviously, it's very difficult if Iran, one, is not going to do it itself or put the question on the table and, two, is not willing to work together with the OPCW. There have been a number of declarations by different states on this, but it is a sensitive issue. I haven't heard from states who want to bring this up, but I wouldn't be surprised if anybody does because it is an important point.

Walker: To make the new Chemical Technical Center successful, a long-term, stable central budget will be required. To build the center, we relied on 35 to 40 million euros in voluntary donations. As part of a stable budget, states-parties will need to agree on the activities the new center will conduct. How are those conversations going?

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) considers its new chemical technical center, set to open this month in The Hague, as a pathbreaking opportunity to expand training, verification activities and international cooperation in its mission to eradicate chemical weapons. (Photo courtesy of OPCW)Van der Kwast: We absolutely agree that they should not come primarily from voluntary donations but rather mainly from the central budget. At the same time, that might be difficult. I think the good thing is that we have the ChemTech Center, and it has been paid for completely by donations from different states.… [S]tates have given opportunities for the organization to work it out, and I think that's the right order because then you cannot see a situation whereby states that have donated more would direct the direction of activities of the center. That's a good starting point.

But it's important to have a good budget. There we see two developments. First, the intention by many member states, and the organization as well, to have training in the center. There is broad understanding that it is of great value for the organization, for the implementation of the convention, but also for further developing possibilities for states to deal with threats and to follow up on what their chemical industry is doing.

The last point is also important because we see a development over the last 10 to 15 years whereby more factories that are producing chemicals are moving to developing countries, sometimes with disastrous results. It's important that we will have inspections there as well and follow-up and also that the states will be in a position to control that and oversee that. The center also can have a role in educating groups from different countries, and that could help on geographical representation. If we would have special trainings for certain regions, that could help enormously. We'll have to see how the budget develops. For the moment, there is a clear will to see how we can use the center as much as possible.

Walker: The American Thoracic Society has great concerns about the rise in the use of riot control agents worldwide and the limited knowledge about their health effects. The OPCW Scientific Advisory Board has defined conditions for the safe use of riot control agents and recommended to remove certain agents from the not-controlled list. Are you aware of any efforts by states-parties and the review conference to revisit riot control agents as a category, implement the science board recommendations, or investigate the use and toxicity?

Van der Kwast: I agree that it's an issue that deserves more attention. It has been mentioned to me by one or two countries, but not as a quite important issue. I would definitely encourage nongovernmental organizations to see how we could make a point that this is on the agenda as well, because it's absolutely an issue.

Walker: There have been repeated delays in the U.S. chemical weapons destruction program, along with every other country, particularly Russia. The U.S. program, scheduled to be finished in 1994, is now looking at 2023. Are you confident that it will meet the September deadline? If they don't make it, the concern is that there could be political fallout during the review conference, particularly as part of national statements.

Van der Kwast: I think you're absolutely right. I have to say personally also, having been involved before when I was head of the Department for Nonproliferation on this, in 2008-09 we were told that it was rapidly progressing and there was a lot of progress that has not materialized. So, it's important that it happen this time. Otherwise, it will be very bad for the review conference, for the reputation of the United States as the main upholder of this treaty. On the other hand, I have positive signs. We've had presentations regularly by people from the defense ministry, including last week, and that presentation looked very good. But as we all know, you can make presentations, and Americans are particularly good at that, look very good without the results.

Despite accomplishments, CWC member states face serious challenges in the struggle to eliminate chemical weapons.

Nuclear Power Plants Under Attack: The Legacy of Zaporizhzhia

April 2023
By Scott Roecker

Almost six months after Russia began its military assault on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in March 2022, experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) finally set off on their first visit to assess the situation at the site.

Ukraine’s beleaguered Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, under control of Russian forces for more than a year, is pictured in October from Prydniprovske in Dnipropetrovsk oblast. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) The trip had been painstakingly negotiated over the summer months, with approvals needed from Ukrainian and Russian government officials. Finally, with an agreement in place, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi and his team of 14 safety, security, and safeguards experts were on the way to the beleaguered plant. By September 1, they had made it to the final checkpoint, just a few hundred meters from their destination, but were blocked from entering the facility. With bombings in the vicinity, the team refused to back down and eventually was allowed to enter. It was an inauspicious start to one of the most important missions in recent IAEA history.

Russia’s attempt to take control of the Zaporizhzhia plant, located in the small city of Enerhodar, began on the night of March 3. Widely broadcast videos clearly show explosions all around the nuclear facility. The jarring footage immediately raised questions about what might happen if a missile were to hit a nuclear reactor, spent fuel pools, nearby dry spent-fuel storage areas, or backup generators that have been needed frequently because of the unreliable power grid. Nuclear power plant security quickly became a hot topic in the news media, even as the very concept of how best to protect nuclear plants was turned upside down.

Until that harrowing night, nuclear security experts and practitioners focused mainly on the threat to nuclear facilities posed by insiders or terrorist organizations, not state actors with invading armies. Given what the world has witnessed at Zaporizhzhia, a new approach is needed that focuses on increasing resiliency to keep plants operating safely while reducing the risk of catastrophic radiation release. That had not been a big priority in the past. Equally important is the need to strengthen international laws and norms to head off any similar attacks in the future.

Surprise Attacks

In the lead-up to the war, few anticipated that Russia would go so far as to target Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, but it did not take long for Russia to make its intentions clear. On the first full day of fighting, Russian troops massed in neighboring Belarus poured over the Ukrainian border into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The site was overtaken quickly as Russian forces set up a defense around the four nuclear reactors located at the site, including infamous Unit No. 4, which exploded during a routine test on April 26, 1986, with devastating consequences.

In the hours and days after that catastrophic accident, contamination spread over a large swath of territory, including what is now called the “Red Forest,” where a particularly large amount of radioactive dust had fallen a few kilometers east of the reactor. Fast forward to 2022 when occupying Russian troops dug trenches in this same area to protect against a Ukrainian counterattack that never came. After 36 days of occupation, Russian war goals shifted, and the troops left abruptly but not before looting the facility. No one knows how the radiation exposure will impact these forces.

Over the course of the war, Russia also has targeted nuclear research centers in Kharkiv and most recently in Kyiv. These centers include research reactors and related laboratories that support efforts to use nuclear materials for peaceful purposes, such as medicine and science. Both of these facilities, as well as a third one in Crimea, previously had housed highly enriched uranium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons. This material was repatriated to Russia in 2012 as part of the effort to minimize weapons-useable nuclear material under the nuclear security summit process launched by U.S. President Barack Obama. It is unclear why Russia chose to target these facilities.

The Zaporizhzhia Difference

Russia’s actions have generated a great deal of discussion regarding the risks associated with nuclear facilities in a time of conflict, but in recent decades, there are numerous examples of nuclear installations that have been attacked or destroyed. The earliest example of this was when Israel bombed a French-made research reactor in Iraq on June 7, 1981.1 A similar action took place in the Syrian desert on September 5, 2007, when two jets launched from Israel with a mission to destroy a facility that likely included what was intended to be a nuclear reactor.2 In both examples, the reactors were under construction and had not started operations, meaning they did not have any nuclear material at the site and there were no IAEA safeguards in place.

Cyberattacks against nuclear facilities also are a growing concern, with countries using such tactics for a variety of objectives, from gathering data to causing physical damage to the facilities. In the case of the largest nuclear reactor in India, hackers associated with North Korea infiltrated its system to uncover information on how that particular reactor design operates.3

More famously, the Stuxnet computer virus was uploaded to computers operating centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz uranium-enrichment plant in the mid-2000s, causing the centrifuges to fail at a much higher rate than would be expected, much to the bafflement of the scientists at that facility. The Stuxnet attack, which was widely attributed to the United States and Israel, was even more implausible because the computers in question were not connected to the internet. It was an important reminder that so-called air-gapped digital systems that are disconnected from networks are still vulnerable to sophisticated attacks.

The situation unfolding in Ukraine, however, is quite different from the types of one-off attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, none of which could have ended with a catastrophic radiation release. The Zaporizhzhia plant has been subjected to prolonged shelling near and, at times, directly at the facility, risking the possibility of a deadly release at any moment. The motives of the earlier attacks, whether aimed at stealing nuclear secrets or preventing weapons proliferation to new countries, were also different. At Zaporizhzhia, the attacks forced specialists from warring countries to work alongside each other to maintain operations throughout the conflict. To operate a reactor this way is less than ideal, to say the least.

Furthermore, the war in Ukraine is the first time military attacks have been launched on multiple nuclear facilities in a country that has a robust and mature nuclear power infrastructure. Although there are obvious strategic gains to be had by taking control of commercial power-producing facilities such as Zaporizhzhia, Russia also has taken aim at nuclear research facilities that hold little to no strategic importance. These brazen barrages increase the possibility of a significant nuclear incident that could change the course of nuclear power expansion around the world, similar to what was seen in the aftermath of previous nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and in 2011 at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. Those accidents dampened interest in nuclear power because countries were concerned about the safety of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear Security Implications

Today, the concept of nuclear security has been fundamentally upended. Before Zaporizhzhia, responsible states doing their best to protect their nuclear facilities would develop a threat assessment, known as a design basis threat, to identify the full range of realistic threat scenarios. These would include situations in which adversaries seeking to gain access to facilities might commit an act of sabotage or steal special nuclear material that could be used in a nuclear weapon. Based on the scenario, nuclear operators would create and evaluate the security systems against the threat. The possibility of a state actor, with an invading army, taking control of a nuclear facility would be considered a scenario beyond the threat assessment and not something against which the nuclear operator should prepare to defend.

Despite the limitations inherent in trying to protect a plant from being bombed or attacked by an army, nuclear operators still can take important steps to reduce the risk of radiological release in times of conflict or in other situations that might impede normal operations. Over the last several years, there has been an increase in crises impacting nuclear facilities, whether due to staffing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic or disruptions and threats related to climate change, including an increase in forest fires. There are lessons to be learned from all these events on how to reduce risk in times of crisis.

One lesson centers on the concept of resiliency.4 In the case of Zaporizhzhia, having adequate backup power options onsite and offsite has helped maintain essential cooling functions at the reactors and spent fuel ponds during times when the main power to the site was cut off. Without proper cooling, a reactor could melt down, as it did in the wake of the 2011 tsunami at Fukushima. The risk of radiation release is also a serious concern with the spent fuel ponds. Having sufficient options for backup power, as well as other key supplies, should be a mandatory requirement at all nuclear power plants worldwide.

Reducing the amount of spent fuel stored at nuclear facilities is another way to reduce risk. Once the fuel is removed from the reactor core, it must cool for a period of time before it can be shipped to an off-site location for long-term storage and disposition. Given the relatively limited options available for long-term storage, however, radioactive spent fuel too often is stored at reactor sites beyond the time required to cool it before transport to a more safe and secure location. Countries must prioritize the development of long-term repositories for nuclear materials to reduce the associated risks of radiation release. Until then, fuel should be transferred from pools to hardened, on-site facilities.

The IAEA Seven Pillars

In addition to and building from the two priorities outlined above, the IAEA has outlined what it calls seven “indispensable” pillars of nuclear safety and security for nuclear installations in response to the situation at Zaporizhzhia.5 The agency believes these pillars are essential for the safe operation of that facility and applicable to reactor operators facing other crises. They were issued the day after Zaporizhzhia came under attack and almost six months before the IAEA team of experts visited the site.

The pillars provide specific guidance on a range of topics, beginning with the foundational components for safe operation. These include the physical integrity of reactor facilities such as the reactor and spent fuel ponds and the safety and security systems. They expand from there to focus on the importance of the human element in the safe operation of a nuclear power plant, addressing the working conditions and the ability to maintain communications with regulators and relevant organizations.

The pillars clearly reflect concerns with the situation at the two nuclear sites when occupied by Russia. In the case of the employees at Chernobyl, one shift of nearly 300 employees was forced to remain at the site for more than three weeks.6 The conditions at Zaporizhzhia, where employees reportedly have been forced to operate under duress and intimidation, also do not meet this IAEA guidance.

The remaining pillars address resiliency and the importance of effective radiation monitoring systems and adequate emergency response measures. On the latter point, establishing a robust emergency response plan for nuclear facilities can prevent a bad incident from turning into something truly disastrous. The international community has stepped up here and sent supplies to Ukraine, which have been helpful in preventing a serious incident at nuclear power plants across the country.7

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), briefs journalists in Kyiv in January after his agency finalized the stationing of permanent IAEA missions at three Ukrainian nuclear power plants: Rivne, Chernobyl, and South Ukraine. (Photo by Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)To monitor the situation at nuclear sites in Ukraine with regard to these pillars, the IAEA has stationed a permanent presence at Zaporizhzhia since the initial site visit in September. This monitoring team initially included two experts focused on nuclear safety and security and has been expanded to four experts in recent months to cover additional topics, such as safeguards. This group provides much needed, unbiased information about what is taking place at the site. The experts also provide regular updates via the IAEA website. In early 2023, the IAEA deployed permanent missions to the other nuclear facilities in Ukraine: Khmelnytsky nuclear power plant, Rivne nuclear power plant, South Ukraine nuclear power plant, and Chernobyl. With these additional teams in place, the IAEA will have at least 11 nuclear safety and security experts in Ukraine at any given time.8

The international community should incorporate the concepts outlined in the seven pillars for nuclear facilities worldwide. As crises around nuclear sites have become a more frequent occurrence, the IAEA pillars are as applicable in those situations as they are in Ukraine today. Although the IAEA guidance is somewhat tailored for the situation in Ukraine, the pillars nevertheless provide a baseline on which countries could expand and strengthen a best practices regime for operating nuclear facilities in challenging conditions.

International Laws and Norms

Following Russia’s invasion, it is clear that the international legal and normative foundation also should be strengthened to head off potential future attacks on nuclear facilities. Existing international laws and norms regarding the protection of nuclear installations in times of conflict are outdated and incomplete. The 1949 Geneva Conventions state that “nuclear electrical generating stations…shall not be made the object of attack” unless they are providing electrical power in “regular, significant and direct support of military operations.” One lesson from Ukraine is that the legal framework for protecting nuclear facilities needs bolstering, as do international norms pertaining to such behavior.

There have been several initiatives over the years to do so. India and Pakistan signed a bilateral agreement in 1989 to recommit every year to forgo targeting nuclear installations in each other’s country and to provide an annual list of facilities that qualify for that agreement. The Pelindaba Treaty that created an African nuclear-weapon-free zone includes an explicit “prohibition of armed attack on nuclear installations.” These bilateral and regional approaches could be the starting point for a discussion on language for a stronger international norm.

The United States could lead on strengthening this norm by pledging not to attack other countries’ civilian nuclear facilities and encouraging other countries to do the same. Another possibility could be to establish a consensus that an attack on a civil nuclear facility is in no one’s interest and does not achieve any legitimate military goal.

There is an excellent opportunity for such an announcement at the upcoming Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima in May. Each member country (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) has operating nuclear power reactors and a vested interest in the continued safe operation of nuclear reactors worldwide. As is now well established, the negative consequences of nuclear accidents are felt around the world. The G7 nations can take the first step toward reinforcing these improved norms and then encourage other countries to join this pledge.

Absent these norms, the IAEA has been working tirelessly to establish a nuclear safety and security protection zone around Zaporizhzhia. What seems like a commonsense policy—in the words of the IAEA, “Don’t shoot at the facility, don’t shoot from the facility”—must be reinforced with verifiable legal mechanisms. Although many of the relevant governments and international organizations are focused on preventing the unthinkable from taking place at Zaporizhzhia, there is more work to be done now to stave off any other future conflict that could threaten nuclear reactors.

Nuclear Energy Implications

The jury is still out on what Russia’s actions in Ukraine will mean for nuclear energy in the future. Nuclear newcomers, as well as countries with more advanced nuclear energy capabilities, are taking note of Russia’s actions. The images of a military force using a nuclear reactor as a base of operations to launch attacks on nearby cities create another difficult complication for countries considering nuclear power.

A multi-layered confinement structure at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant seals off the debris of the plant’s fourth reactor that resulted from the disastrous 1986 nuclear accident. (Photo by Hennadii Minchenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)As like-minded states seek to roll back climate change and reach zero carbon emissions in the next few decades, nuclear power could play an important role in the overall mix of energy sources to achieve that goal. If a significant nuclear incident occurs at Zaporizhzhia or elsewhere in Ukraine or during the next conflict, it could have a major chilling effect on global interest in expanding nuclear energy. That was the reaction in the wake of other serious nuclear incidents, including Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island, which all led to unintended release of radioactive particles. As a result, the world turned away from nuclear power for a time in favor of other, less climate-friendly sources. Given the enormous challenges of climate change, another such disaster could have significant long-term impacts that go well beyond the specific environmental impacts from the nuclear incident itself.

Ironically, Russia had positioned itself as a global leader in nuclear energy in the last several decades and is providing nuclear reactors to several countries, including Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. The scenes of Russian forces firing weapons at Zaporizhzhia certainly will give some nations pause about continuing cooperation with Russia on nuclear power. Indeed, last May, Finland terminated its contract with Rosatom, Russia’s semiprivate, semiofficial agency responsible for nuclear reactor designs and manufacturing, for the purchase of one nuclear power reactor.

Fortunately for Finland and other countries considering nuclear power, there are options from which to choose. Given the events in Ukraine, it is more important than ever to implement a nuclear energy program that is safe, secure, and consistent with the nonproliferation norms that have been established over the last few decades. New types of small modular reactors that are currently in the design phase in Canada, France, Japan, and the United States should give countries more options and flexibility when considering nuclear power if they are deployed responsibly.

There is much work to be done to strengthen security around nuclear power plants in times of crisis. Although Russia’s actions in Ukraine pose the most immediate challenge, the world cannot wait until a resolution of that war to begin tackling this broader issue. For now, one can only hope that a nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine is avoided and that Enerhodar (“energy’s gift” in Ukrainian) remains the vision for nuclear energy in the future.



1. Joyce Battle and William Burr, “Israeli Attack on Iraq’s Osirak 1981: Setback or Impetus for Nuclear Weapons?” National Security Archive, June 7, 2021, https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/iraq-nuclear-vault/2021-06-07/osirak-israels-strike-iraqs-nuclear-reactor-40-years-later.

2. “Israel Admits Striking Suspected Syrian Nuclear Reactor in 2007,” BBC, March 21, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-43481803.

3. Prabhjote Gill, “Here’s Why North Korean Hackers Attacked India’s Nuclear Power Plant,” Business Insider India, November 13, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.in/tech/news/heres-why-north-korean-hackers-attacked-indias-nuclear-power-plant/articleshow/72035492.

4. Geoffrey Chapman et al., “Nuclear Security in Times of Crisis,” Centre for Science and Security Studies, King’s College London, 2021, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/csss/assets/nuclear-security-in-times-of-crisis-handbook.pdf.

5. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “IAEA Director General Grossi’s Initiative to Travel to Ukraine,” March 23, 2022, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/iaea-director-general-grossis-initiative-to-travel-to-ukraine.

6. Reis Thebault, “After 600 Hours in Russian-Controlled Chernobyl Power Plant, Workers Get to Go Home,” The Washington Post, March 21, 2022.

7. “IAEA Delivers Radiation Monitoring Equipment to Ukraine,” Nuclear Engineering International, July 20, 2022, https://www.neimagazine.com/news/newsiaea-delivers-radiation-monitoring-equipment-to-ukraine-9861624.

8. IAEA, “Update 143 - IAEA Director General Statement on Situation in Ukraine,” January 26, 2023, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/update-143-iaea-director-general-statement-on-situation-in-ukraine.

Scott Roecker is the vice president for nuclear materials security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The Russian assault on Zaporizhzhia has made clear the need for a new approach that increases resiliency and keeps nuclear power plants operating safely in conflict zones.

Lost in the Gap: Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons

April 2023
By Michael Crowley and Malcolm Dando

International treaties designed to prevent the weaponization of chemical and biological substances are not keeping up with modern science, and danger is lurking ahead.

Although the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) were designed to be comprehensive in the substances encompassed and responsive to technological change, a regulatory gap risks both regimes failing to effectively prevent the development of toxin and bioregulator weapons now and in the future.

Police in Tbilisi, Georgia, used water cannons, pepper spray and tear gas against thousands of people who gathered outside the Georgian parliament on March 8 to protest a controversial draft law that would require some organizations receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” Activists decry the law as a breach of human rights. (Photo by Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)Recognizing that the store of potential future agents is essentially open-ended, both treaties are intended, inter alia, to cover and prevent the weaponization of toxins, bioregulators, and other substances of biological origin, as well as their synthetic analogues.1 The threat from the misuse of these potential agents continues to grow with advances in and the convergence of the chemical and life sciences and associated technologies. Because of long-standing textual ambiguities, however, exacerbated by inconsistencies and failures in implementation by states-parties, the apparent overlapping protection of the BWC and the CWC masks a dangerous regulatory gap.

Julian Perry Robinson long recognized and warned of these failings:

Such overlap ought to mean, one might think, that the weapons are well controlled, being subject not just to one but to two international disarmament treaties. In the real world, however, that is not the way it is. That overlap seems simply to have given people involved in implementing one of the two treaties opportunity to relinquish responsibility for anything also covered by the other treaty. The area of overlap thus risks becoming a gulf into which things disappear. It looks like this has been happening to toxins.2

The fifth CWC review conference, scheduled for May in The Hague, has an explicit mandate to examine long-term issues of concern and to “take into account any relevant scientific and technological developments.”3 It is imperative that the 193 member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which implements the CWC, collectively recognize and address the significant and growing dangers from the potential malign application of the rapidly advancing chemical and life sciences. If they fail to do so, they risk eroding the OPCW’s capability to effectively prevent the emergence and proliferation of tomorrow’s chemical weapons.

Advancing Chemical and Life Sciences

The chemical, life, and associated sciences are undergoing a revolution in capabilities that is allowing scientists to understand and manipulate living systems in unprecedented ways. Although capable of producing immense societal and health benefits, these capabilities can be misused for malign purposes—the so-called dual-use problem. Of particular potential relevance are developments and convergences in neuroscience, medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, immunology, molecular biology, systems biology, and synthetic biology, as well as their interactions with nanoscience, artificial intelligence research, and computer science.

Such overarching processes have significantly impacted and advanced the discovery and study of toxins and bioregulators, their mechanisms of action, the corresponding receptor and subreceptor sites with which they interact, and the broader functioning of the human brain, central nervous system, and other affected regulatory and physiological systems. These advances have occurred in parallel with the increasing ability to chemically synthesize peptide bioregulators and incorporate chemical modifications, resulting in analogues with markedly different physiological properties. Undeniably, this knowledge, and associated technological advances, will be a significant benefit, but given the multi-faceted applicability, it could instead be exploited in the development of toxin and bioregulator weapons or for other malign manipulation of core human physiological systems.

Dual-Use Research

One area of continuing concern has been the secrecy surrounding defense establishment research and associated activities related to toxins, bioregulators, bioregulatory pathways and physiological systems, and measures to facilitate agent dissemination and uptake. The necessity of such defense work is recognized and specifically permitted when it is conducted for “protective purposes” under the CWC or for “prophylactic, protection and other purposes” under the BWC. To increase confidence and prevent misperceptions, states are required to report on such work through annual CWC Article X declarations and are encouraged to submit similar details through the BWC confidence-building measures process. Unfortunately, public transparency in this area is insufficient to address disquiet surrounding the intentions and applications of such research and associated activities conducted by many national defense establishments.

For example, there have been decades-long concerns about institutions funded by or related to the U.S. military reportedly carrying out biological weapons-related research for “defensive purposes,” which has been perceived by certain states and civil society observers as coming dangerously near or actually crossing the line into offensive weapons research. Specific concerns have related to the apparent questionable U.S. interpretation that the BWC allows development of biological weapons when intended for “threat assessment” and the development of defensive countermeasures. A particular disquiet followed the 2004 establishment of the U.S. National Biological Threat Characterization Center with planned capabilities to investigate “aerosol dynamics, novel delivery of threat, novel packaging, simulation & modelling (epidemiology), genetic engineering, environmental stability, work on bioregulators and immunomodulators, genomics/proteomics [and] red teaming [i.e., duplication of threat scenarios].”4

Open-source information indicates that a range of contemporary toxin and bioregulator research of possible dual-use application has been carried out by the center and other U.S. military and military-related institutions and researchers. This has included investigation of staphylococcal superantigen functioning, production
of engineered nontoxic botulinum toxins through “rational design,” employment of recombinant technology to develop a nontoxic staphylococcal enterotoxin B mutant, and work on aerosolized ricin and botulinum toxin.

The United States has provided sufficient information or allowed publication of scientific papers on much of this research indicating their medical or protective purpose. Although the United States is far more open than many countries, given the lack of full public reporting and transparency for certain facilities and programs, it is not possible to determine the purpose of all such research or its potential application.

Novel Toxin Bio-threat Agents

Dual-use toxin research of potential concern extends far beyond previously investigated weapons agents. Military and nonmilitary institutions and scientists have searched out a growing range of “novel” toxins that could be weaponized, including those derived from indigenous poisonous plants, amphibians, reptiles, scorpions, and marine animals. In some cases, the stated intent and associated activities were clearly medical or for other protective purposes. In others, the intention was unstated or unclear; and in certain cases, the purpose appears explicitly to be toxin weaponization.

Scientists from the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and related bodies published a series of papers on their investigations of toxins derived from native Indian stinging and poisonous plants. In 2018 they argued that because the BWC “banned the use or stockpiling of most of the pathogenic bio-threat agents [this will] necessitate…search [for] some novel natural bio-threat agents from stinging plants that may be used as future bio-weapon[s] for self-defense purposes.” They consequently undertook a study to “identify, characterize and screen the potential of…stinging plants on the basis of their secondary metabolite contents that may be used for the formulation of novel future bio-threat agents for self-defense.”5

DRDO research continued into plants that produce “toxins that have the ability to adversely affect human health in a variety of ways, ranging from relatively mild allergic reactions to serious medical complications, including death.” They successfully identified several poisonous plants that can be used for the development of novel, multisystem, targeted warfare agents for defensive applications. They identified poisonous components from 10 plants and investigated their “mode of action,” which could “have harmful effect[s] on various biological systems like nervous, cardiac, digestive, respiratory, dermal, etc[.] simultaneously.”6 Some of the toxins investigated as potential agents, such as aconitine, are highly toxic and can be lethal. Others, although not as poisonous, potentially could be employed as “less lethal” toxin weapons.

Toxin Production

Concerns extend to large-scale production of potential weapons agents by certain states. Following its August 2013 chemical nerve agent attack on its own population, Syria was pressured to accede to the CWC and undertake an expedited chemical weapons disarmament process. On October 23, 2013, Syria declared its stockpile of chemical weapons and agreed to facilitate their verification and subsequent destruction under OPCW supervision. In its initial declaration, however, Syria failed to provide adequate information about its toxin-related activities. According to a press report, “Western officials with access to intelligence about Syria, [highlighted] topics of concern [including] deadly…agent ricin.”7

The United States and other CWC states-parties questioned the “accuracy and completeness of Syria’s declaration,” and in April 2014, the OPCW director-general established a Declaration Assessment Team “to attempt to resolve many of these concerns, including toxin-relevant activity.”8 Following the team’s work, Syria in 2014 amended its initial declaration. Subsequently, the OPCW director-general reported that Syria had declared “a facility for the production of ricin,” later identified as the Al-Maliha facility, as a “chemical weapons production facility.” He stated that “the newly declared facility is subject to verification and destruction.” According to Syria’s amendment, “the entire quantity of ricin produced was disposed of prior to the entry into force of the Convention for the Syrian Arab Republic.”9 In July 2018, the OPCW reported that its Technical Secretariat had verified the destruction of all Syrian declared chemical weapons production facilities, which included Al-Maliha.10

Despite this, there are still unresolved questions concerning Syria’s toxin production activities that reflect limitations in the OPCW reporting and verification system. First, if Syria had admitted its continued possession of a ricin stockpile after its accession to the CWC, it would have been required to declare all locations and quantities of such stockpiles and facilitate OPCW verification of its stockpile declaration through on-site visits and then verification of all stockpile destruction. Because Syria stated that it had destroyed its ricin stockpiles at some stage before accession, no such reporting and OPCW verification took place.

Second, Syria stated that its ricin production had been for medical purposes, such as cancer research and treatment. This assertion appears to conflict with Syria’s formal declaration of the facility to the OPCW as a chemical weapons production facility because this designation specifically excludes a “single small-scale facility for production of chemicals listed in Schedule 1 for purposes not prohibited under this Convention.”11 Clearly, this open question needs to be resolved. If the Al-Maliha ricin production facility was intended solely for medical or other civilian purposes, why did Syria not simply present proof to the OPCW and the public and continue with such important medical work?

At the time, Reuters reported skepticism regarding Syria’s reasons for not including the facility in its initial OPCW declaration. It quoted one unnamed diplomatic source as saying that “‘Syria will argue that the facilities were not revealed earlier because they were in a rush when they first had to report them…. They had said the ricin was for medical purposes, but we don’t believe that’s true.’”12 Given the previous, repeated obfuscation about its chemical weapons program, there is still legitimate concern as to whether Syria has been completely forthright about its activities at Al-Maliha and whether any further production facilities or stockpiles of ricin or other potential toxin weapons remain.

Brain Research Projects

In the last two decades, the technologies available to neuroscientists have developed rapidly and made it increasingly possible to understand the circuits in the central nervous system that underlie our behavior and the roles played by bioregulators in such processes. The obvious advantages of this work, for example in helping people with brain dysfunctions and injuries, has led states to initiate large-scale brain research projects. In certain countries, notably China, scientists at military medical institutions and other defense-related facilities are involved in much of the research. A number of research strands of the China Brain Project and related work of Chinese scientists on neurological systems and associated bioregulators, including noradrenaline, 5-HT, serotonin, and orexin, in a variety of simple animal models (fruit flies, zebrafish, and mice) have potential dual-use applicability.

To better understand more complex human behaviors and the mechanisms that produce them, large-scale work is also being carried out in China on the nervous system and responses of nonhuman primates, such as macaque monkeys. This has important dual-use implications because previous biological weaponeers did not restrict their work to manipulation of basic functions of the brain but also sought to influence human emotions, cognition, and consequent behavior. As noted in 2017,

this raises concerns about tacit capabilities…and the yoking of [nonhuman primate] studies and findings to military agendas under programs of dual- or direct-use…. Of particular note in such efforts is Junweikejiwei, the newly developed Chinese research agency that conjoins efforts of the [Chinese Academy of Sciences] and China’s Ministry of Defense, and which is modeled after the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to engage rapid, high-risk/high-return approaches to bioscience and technology.13

It is certain that work within the China Brain Project includes studies of higher functions of the brain using advanced biotechnology with nonhuman primates as test subjects. One of China’s leading researchers highlighted the “goals of non-human primate research,” which included studies of the cognitive functions using nonhuman primates as the animal model and the generation of genetically modified, including transgenic, monkeys as animal models of human brain disorders and for basic neurobiology research. The research seeks to explore the neural basis of cognition, including how molecules and cells establish synaptic contacts and generate neural circuit activities.14 Although the purported purposes of such research are benign, there are risks of potential malign application, including to inform or facilitate development of bioregulator weapons to attack, subtly influence, or subvert human cognition.

‘Less Lethal’ Weapons

Concerns about the malign application of toxins, bioregulators, and other substances of biological origin, as well as their synthetic analogues, have extended to their development and use as so-called, often misnamed “less lethal weapons.” A particular focus of growing disquiet among many CWC states-parties, as well as medical and scientific bodies, has been development and use of weapons employing central nervous system-acting chemicals.

A photo taken October 26, 2002 shows hostages being evacuated by bus from the Dubrovka theater in Moscow where Chechen rebels held theater-goers hostage since October 23. Over 120 hostages died following the use of aerosolized central nervous system-acting chemicals by Russian security forces. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)These are a disparate group of toxic chemicals whose purported purpose as weapons is to cause prolonged but nonpermanent disability or incapacitation. They include centrally acting agents producing loss of consciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, paralysis, and disorientation. Many putative agents have low safety margins, and inappropriate doses cause serious, sometimes permanent health effects, even death.

The United States conducted long-term research into a range of potential central nervous system-acting chemicals, including pharmaceutical chemicals and bioregulators and related bioregulatory pathways, for law enforcement and military purposes on and off from the 1970s to the early 2000s. In addition to military- and law enforcement-funded projects intended to inform or facilitate potential development of such weapons, a wider range of potentially relevant dual-use research into related fields, such as brain research projects, has been funded in part by U.S. defense agencies. There is no evidence that any weapons employing central nervous system-acting chemicals were developed or fielded. In 2013 the United States unilaterally rejected the development, stockpiling, and use of this category of weapons and reconfirmed that position in November 2021.

The highly significant U.S. shutdown of such programs can be contrasted with the continuing worrisome activities of Russia. Until its collapse, the Soviet Union had undertaken research and attempted development of weapons employing central nervous system-acting chemicals, including pharmaceutical chemicals and bioregulators. According to high-level whistleblowers, during the 1980s at least, the Soviets explored potential bioregulator weapons in this category, investigating endorphins, enkephalins, and other neuromodulating peptides potentially capable of altering human cognition and emotions. One whistleblower alleged that “the mood-altering possibilities of regulatory peptides were of particular interest to the KGB.” Although no evidence of development or use of bioregulator weapons has been found, it is unclear whether all such activities terminated following the change in political system in Russia.

In 2002, Russian security forces employed an aerosolized central nervous system-acting pharmaceutical chemical weapon in a large-scale anti-terrorist operation to rescue more than 900 hostages held in a Moscow theater. Although most hostages were freed, more than 120 of them were killed by the chemical agent, and many more continue to suffer long-term health problems. Since then, Russian dual-use research into pharmaceutical chemicals with potential central nervous system weapons application has been reported. Russia stated that law enforcement use of such weapons is not regulated by the CWC. It rejected the legitimacy of the 2021 CWC conference of state-parties “understanding” that law enforcement use of aerosolized versions of these chemicals was prohibited under the convention.

Riot control agents are defined under the CWC as chemicals not listed in one of the treaty schedules, which rapidly produce sensory irritation or disabling physical effects that disappear within a short time following termination of exposure. In addition to chemically synthesized chemicals, these agents include a number of substances of biological origin, notably capsaicinoids. The CWC prohibits the use of riot control agents as a method of warfare, but permits their use for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes,” provided they are used in “types and quantities” consistent with such purposes.

Riot control agents have been frequently misused for serious human rights violations, most commonly in noncustodial settings to restrict, intimidate, and punish public protesters worldwide and in the prisons, detention centers, and police stations of certain countries to mistreat individuals.15 A recurring medical concern has been their use in excessive quantities in the open air or in confined spaces where the targeted individuals cannot disperse. In such situations, serious injury or death can result, including from the toxic properties of the chemical agents or asphyxiation.16

This situation could dramatically worsen as development, marketing, and deployment of systems capable of delivering significant amounts of riot control agents over wide areas or extended distances intensifies. In addition to potential misuse for collective mistreatment or punishment of crowds, such wide-area riot control agent delivery mechanisms could be employed as force multipliers in conjunction with firearms, making lethal force more deadly on a large scale. Although nominally developed for law enforcement, they also may be incorporated into military arsenals in the future and used in armed conflict in contravention of the CWC and, in the case of capsaicinoids, the BWC.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), headquartered in The Hague, implements the Chemical Weapons Convention, whose states-parties will consider ways to strengthen the treaty at a review conference in May. (Photo by Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images)The OPCW Scientific Advisory Board in its February 2023 report for the forthcoming review conference has voiced concerns over the “continued development, testing, production, and promotion of diverse” wide-area riot control agent delivery mechanisms. It warned that “the capabilities being developed increasingly resemble military equipment. These systems could be repurposed and filled with other chemicals,” including chemical warfare agents, central nervous system-acting chemicals, and bioregulators.17

Civil society researchers have documented development and promotion of wide-area riot control agent delivery mechanisms, including indoor dispersion devices, water cannons, external area denial devices, multibarrel projectile launchers, large-caliber projectiles, and delivery mechanisms mounted on remote weapons systems, unmanned ground vehicles, and drones.18 Widespread deployment has not been documented, but the world may now be at a tipping point where proliferation, use, and misuse may be beginning.

Challenges for Today and Tomorrow

Perceptions of the potential threats from or uses of toxin and bioregulator weapons will be influenced by the unique and evolving international, regional, and national security environment that each state faces. Such considerations are complicated where the borders may blur, shifting between large and small international and noninternational armed conflicts, large-scale human rights violations, revolutions and uprisings, insurgencies, terrorism, and organized crime. Of obvious concern would be potential state interest in perceived military utility and consequent development and acquisition of toxin and bioregulator weapons with wide-area battlefield effects causing mass fatalities and casualties through severe disruption of the central nervous system and other core bodily functions.

Alternatively, state militaries may be attracted to “less lethal” forms of such weapons that cause unconsciousness, immobilization, or other temporary incapacitation or that more subtly alter the perception, emotions, and behavior of opposing combatants. In addition to their use in full-scale armed conflict, military forces could employ toxin or bioregulator weapons in other scenarios of potential or actual combat such as peacekeeping, peace enforcement, counterinsurgency, or counterterrorism operations, particularly where civilians and combatants are mixed.

Police and security forces, in addition to continued use of existing riot control agents, may in the future be tempted to utilize toxins and bioregulators for domestic law enforcement to manipulate or punish protesting crowds or for other large-scale policing of public assemblies. In custodial situations, certain toxins and bioregulators could make prisoners compliant and trusting, while alternative agents could cause discomfort, pain, or illness; induce depression or anxiety; and so be employed in torture. Certain state intelligence and internal security forces, such as the Soviet Union, previously attempted to develop bioregulator and toxin weapons for use in espionage operations, including covert assassinations. It seems plausible that such activities will continue, potentially for use against their own citizens and targets in third countries.

Building on the existing capabilities of the chemical, life, and associated sciences and postulating potential research trajectories, it can be imagined how the malign application of future developments, if insufficiently regulated, could enable states to chemically manipulate and subjugate large swaths of their own or foreign populations. Although such repressive capabilities are speculative now, the world’s rapidly increasing knowledge of and ability to manipulate the body’s bioregulatory pathways, coupled with advances in wide-area agent dissemination, mean that such threats are likely to increase in the coming years if not addressed now.

The BWC and CWC were primarily intended to prevent and address the development and use of biological and chemical weapons in armed conflict and to facilitate the destruction of all extant weapons production capacity and stockpiles. There are serious questions about whether these conventions and the associated control regimes can respond adequately to the diverse and potentially malign applications of the chemical and life sciences on the battlefield and beyond. The CWC review conference beginning May 15 will be an important indicator about whether that treaty can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.



1. Toxins can be considered to be toxic, or poisonous, material of natural origin and their synthetic analogues or derivatives that can cause death, permanent harm, or temporary incapacitation. Bioregulators are naturally occurring chemicals produced within living organisms that normally help to ensure the proper functioning of vital physiological systems in those same organisms. If present in or introduced into the body in excessively large amounts, these benign chemical messengers will produce extremely devasting toxic effects, becoming highly potent de facto toxins.

2. Julian Perry Robinson, “Bringing the CBW Conventions Closer Together,” The CBW Conventions Bulletin, No. 80 (September 2008), p. 2, http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Units/spru/hsp/documents/cbwcb80.pdf.

3. Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction, art. VIII, para. 22, January 13, 1993, 1974 U.N.T.S. 45 (hereinafter CWC).

4. Lt. Col. George Korch, “Leading Edge of Biodefense: The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center,” n.d., slide 12, https://biosecurity.fas.org/resource/documents/nbacc%20ppt.pdf (presentation, U.S. Department of Defense Pest Management Workshop, Jacksonville, Florida, February 2004).

5. Sanjay Mohan Gupta, Kamal Kumar, and Rakshit Pathak, “Phytochemical Analysis of Indian Stinging Plants: An Initiative Towards Development of Future Novel Biothreat Agents for Self-Defence,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, India Section B: Biological Sciences, Vol. 88, No. 2 (2018): 819–825.

6. Sanjay Mohan Gupta et al., “Himalayan Toxic Plants of Defense Importance,” ACTA Scientific Medical Sciences, Vol. 2, No. 3 (June 2018): 44–48.

7. Louis Charbonneau, “Western Intel Suggests Syria Can Still Produce Chemical Arms,” Reuters, April 25, 2014.

8. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, “2015 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” June 5, 2015, https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2015/243224.htm#Syria.

9. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council, “Note by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” ECM44/DG.1, July 25, 2014, para. 4(b).

10. OPCW Executive Council, “Note by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” EC-89/DG.1, July 24, 2018.

11. CWC, art. II, para. 8(b)(iii).

12. Anthony Deutsch, “Exclusive: Syria Reveals More Chemical Weapons Facilities to Watchdog - Sources,” Reuters, September 17, 2014.

13. Guillermo Palchik, Celeste Chen, and James Giordano, “Monkey Business? Development, Influence, and Ethics of Potentially Dual-Use Brain Science on the World Stage,” Neuroethics, Vol. 11, No. 2 (February 2017): 111–114.

14. Mu-ming Poo, “China Brain Project and Non-human Primate Research in China” (Presentation, The Brain Forum, Lausanne, 2016), slide 11, https://thebrainforum.org/downloads/Presentations-2015-and-2016/China-Brain-Project-and-non-human-primate-research-Prof-Mu-ming-Poo.pdf.

15. For illustrative cases, see Amnesty International, “Tear Gas: An Investigation,” n.d., https://teargas.amnesty.org/#top (accessed March 18, 2023); Michael Crowley, Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and Their Means of Delivery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 50–80.

16. See Amnesty International, “Tear Gas: An Investigation,” n.d., https://teargas.amnesty.org/#top (accessed March 18, 2023); Michael Crowley, Chemical Control: Regulation of Incapacitating Chemical Agent Weapons, Riot Control Agents and Their Means of Delivery (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 48–49 and pp. 72–75.

17. OPCW Review Conference, “Report by the Director-General: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on Developments in Science and Technology to the Fifth Special Session of the Conference of the States Parties to Review the Operation of the Chemical Weapons Convention,” RC-5/DG.1, February 22, 2023, para. 80

18. Crowley, Chemical Control; Michael Crowley, Tear Gassing by Remote Control, Remote Control Project/Bradford University/Omega Research Foundation, December 2015.


Michael Crowley is an honorary visiting senior research fellow at Bradford University and research associate with the Omega Research Foundation. Malcolm Dando is a fellow of the Royal Society of Biology in the United Kingdom and Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow at Bradford University. This article is drawn in part from the authors’ recent book: Toxin and Bioregulator Weapons: Preventing the Misuse of the Chemical and Life Sciences, Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

International treaties designed to prevent the weaponization of chemical and biological substances are not keeping up with modern science. 

Strengthening the Chemical Weapons Convention: An Interview with Joseph Manso, U.S. Ambassador to the OPCW

April 2023

Joseph Manso, U. S. ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, says that “a violator of the norm against chemical weapons [such as Syria] will not be treated as a normal country.” (Photo: OPCW)Delegates to the fifth review conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) will convene in The Hague on May 15 with two markers on their scoresheet. One is positive: the United States is on track to complete the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile in September, in line with its CWC obligations. The other is ominous: two CWC states are known violators of the 26-year-old convention, which outlaws the development, production, and use of deadly chemical weapons and requires the verifiable destruction of remaining stockpiles. As the convention’s implementing body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), recently confirmed that Syria has used chemical weapons five times against its own civilians. U.S. and European officials have accused Russia of using a chemical agent in its attempted assassinations of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and of Sergei Skirpal, a former Russian military intelligence office, and his daughter, Yulia, in the United Kingdom. Political leaders, academics, and civil society groups have many ideas how the CWC can be strengthened, including enhancing OPCW forensic capabilities, adding more chemicals to the CWC ban list, and reframing the CWC mission to expand the use of challenge inspections. Yet, the review conference takes place under the same tough conditions plaguing many international meetings in the past year. Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has upended the international system, intensifying hostilities and mistrust among leading nations and making it more difficult to deal with security challenges. Carol Giacomo, editor of Arms Control Today, spoke with Joseph Manso, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, about expectations for the review conference. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

ARMS CONTROL TODAY: What do you think have been the major successes of the CWC over the
past three decades?

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Manso: I think it is a tremendous success. The United States really values both the CWC and the OPCW. Among the successes would be, first of all, the now-almost-completed destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles. I am emphasizing declared stockpiles, and this is, I think for the first time, the elimination of a whole category of weapons of mass destruction. It’s an impressive achievement and has strongly reinforced the norm against chemical weapons use, and I think that’s tremendously important. Even today, only a very small number of countries challenge that norm, and they don’t do so openly. The Assad regime [in Syria] does not admit to using chemical weapons. The Russian Federation, even when Navalny was poisoned or the Skripals were poisoned, does not admit to using chemical weapons because they know that the norm against chemical weapons use is so strong that if they admitted to it, they would really have no sympathy in the international community. So, I would say destruction of a whole class of weapons of mass destruction and reinforcement of the norm against chemical weapons use are two very significant achievements.

Then there is the work of the [OPCW] Technical Secretariat in international cooperation and assistance, which is important [and] ongoing, and we hope to see it further strengthened. Part of what will strengthen it is the new Center for Chemistry and Technology that’s coming online. The center has a lab, much expanded from what the OPCW has now. It also has classrooms for training and cooperation, conference spaces for meetings, and an equipment storage area that allows for hands-on training with very sophisticated equipment to detect and analyze various chemical weapons and compounds. The bottom line is, I think the OPCW has done a lot of good work.

ACT: When does that center become operational?

Manso: The 12th of May is the official opening, but the Technical Secretariat is in the process of moving into the facility now.

ACT: The OPCW determined that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against the opposition in Syria. There has been public shaming, but no real price paid for that. How does that serve deterrence? It certainly isn’t deterring Assad.

Manso: That’s a fair question. I would say there are a couple of points to it. First, before the OPCW did this investigating allegations of chemical weapons use alone, it had a joint team with the United Nations, the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which attributed four chemical weapons attacks in Syria to the Assad regime. The Russians decided they were not happy with this and vetoed the extension of the JIM. They used their veto three times in one day to prevent any extension of the JIM. So then, the OPCW created the Investigation and Identification Team, which has now attributed five chemical weapons attacks, through rigorous scientific methods and analyzing the evidence, to the Assad regime. This is a tremendous advance over what the OPCW could do previously, when its teams were authorized to say whether or not chemical weapons were used, but they were not authorized or mandated to attribute the attacks to any particular party. So, it is a step in the right direction and some added teeth for the OPCW because the organization can investigate and say chemical weapons were used or not and can attribute it to a particular party.

Last August, people in Idlib, Syria, staged a demonstration against the Assad regime for its chemical weapons attack on Eastern Ghouta in 2013. Thousands of women and children were affected by the poisonous agents used in the attack.  (Photo by Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)The other thing is that the OPCW is a treaty-based international organization. It is a political organization, not a court of law or a military alliance. It is not fair to expect them to do things that legitimately fall in the domain of other types of institutions. What the OPCW can do, and I would agree with you that deterrence is important, is the OPCW can extract a political price for using chemical weapons. A violator of the norm against the use of chemical weapons will not be treated as a normal country. People will know that you are not a normal country, that you used chemical weapons. In fact, at an OPCW Conference of the States Parties meeting in 2021, it was determined that Syria would be stripped of certain rights and privileges at the OPCW, such as the right to vote and the right to hold office until it fulfills its obligations. Now you might say, well, President [Bashar] Assad probably isn’t up at night worrying about whether or not he has an OPCW vote or Syria holds an office at the OPCW. But there is a broader strategy here, and the broader strategy is to isolate the Syrian regime, delegitimize them, and not have them treated as a normal country.

This OPCW action is not an isolated incident. It is part of this broader policy of not treating the Assad regime as a normal country and reinforcing other tools so there is a political price to pay. Having said that, there’s also a conversation, and I’m not the right guy to go into detail on this, on judicial pathways for attributing judicial responsibility for chemical weapons use. That’s what courts could do. One person to talk to about this would be, for example, Beth Van Schaack, who is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice. There are criminal cases that have been brought against the Assad regime by officials in Germany and France, and now there is an ongoing discussion of whether there should be an international attempt to hold them judicially responsible.

ACT: Is that something that the United States is planning to participate in, to lead?

Manso: Well, not me personally because I’m the U.S. representative to the OPCW and the OPCW is not a judicial body. But if you ask, is the United States interested in this, the answer is yes, and we’re very interested in participating in these conversations on judicial responsibility for chemical weapons use and seeing how this could be designed and carried out. But we’re in the early days on this.

ACT: You said the norm against chemical weapons has been strengthened. But Russia is a major impediment. It has been accused of using chemical weapons itself and is creating havoc in Ukraine. The Russians are aligned with Assad and don’t hold him to account. What do you do about that?

Russia is blamed for the near fatal poisoning of the now-imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, seen inside a glass cell during a district court hearing in Moscow in 2021. Russia and Syria are the only two states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention that are accused of using chemical weapons. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)Manso: I would say that Russia is not in compliance with its obligations under the CWC, and I would very much agree that the evidence points to Russia having used a chemical agent in its attempted assassination of Navalny and also for the acts [against the Skripals] on UK soil. But I have two other points. One, it is only a very small number of countries that are willing to use chemical weapons. You have Syria and Russia. North Korea probably was also involved in an incident, but they’re not a member to the CWC. So, of the countries in the CWC that have used chemical weapons, it’s essentially Russia and Syria. As I said, they deny it. So, they feel the need to try to cover their tracks; Bellingcat has done a great job of uncovering those tracks.

I’m very glad the Navalny film won the Oscar, and I hope Navalny is released from his unjust imprisonment. But at the end of the day, on the enforcement of regimes, you strive for perfection, you don’t always get it. Most countries abide by the CWC. There are a very small number of bad actors, and we need to focus on that. You don’t cover it up, but also don’t ignore the fact that most countries are in fact playing by the rules.

ACT: As we look toward this review conference in May, apart from Russia and Ukraine, what other challenges do you see, and what are you expecting to come out of it?

Manso: The review conference is also an opportunity. The future holds different challenges than the past. Destruction of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile should be completed by September. The new Center for Chemistry and Technology is coming online, as I said, in May. So, we have an opportunity to strengthen the OPCW and make it fit for purpose for the future.

We’d like the verification regime and international cooperation and assistance programs enhanced. We would like to see further work on dealing with the threat of nonstate actors or terrorists using chemical weapons. We would very much like to see continued scientific work and improved capacity for addressing the threats from new and novel types of toxic chemicals. All of these are opportunities to make this organization fit for the future. So, the U.S. policy is, we value the CWC, we value the OPCW. Based on that policy, we’re very much looking to have a positive forward-looking agenda as part of the review conference.

What always happens in diplomacy is that getting consensus on a final conference document among all the CWC states-parties is going to be difficult. As in other arms control forums over the past year, sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t, and my crystal ball is no better than anybody else’s. If you ask me, will the review conference succeed, the answer is, we’re committed to doing our part to make it a success. We’d certainly like to see a consensus document, which I think most participating countries would like to see. Let’s stay flexible and work for success.

ACT: On verification measures, what would you consider success coming out of this review conference?

Manso: There are a lot of different angles on verification, so part of it would be the OPCW retaining the knowledge that they have gathered from these various investigations that they’ve done and combining that with the new lab where they’d be able to do things like chemical forensics.

It is also about making the industry verification regime more efficient and updating the approach there. We could explore the challenges in the industry cluster and see what is needed in terms of improvements. The idea would be that better verification helps build confidence in the treaty. From the U.S. point of view and the point of view of many other countries, while you want to do verification more efficiently and you want to do it well, you don’t want to do it in a way that creates an undue burden on industry.

ACT: Is improved verification a priority among the things you’d like to see come out of the review conference?

Manso: It’s one of the priorities. The overarching priority is full implementation of the treaty. That means we do better on verification, and it also means we do better on areas like international cooperation and assistance.

ACT: Of the eight CWC states-parties that have declared that they possess chemical weapons, the United States was the first to begin destruction of its stockpile under the treaty but is now scheduled to be the last one to complete the process. What has been the holdup?

Manso: If you’re going to deal with these issues, you’re going to deal with local governments, with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), with the U.S. Congress, with environmental concerns. It’s a complicated process. Not that we can’t do it, not that we haven’t been doing it, not that we aren’t going to finish in September; but if you ask me why it took us such a long time, one, we did have a large stockpile; and two, we had to work it through our system. Our system is not the fastest system in the world, but it does provide for stakeholders to express their views and be satisfied.

If you go to Bluegrass, Kentucky, or Pueblo, Colorado [where the last U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles are based], the local communities are very well informed of what’s going on in those destruction sites. They are very well aware of the environmental safeguards that have been taken. I was very pleasantly surprised at the level of local support for those efforts. That didn’t happen overnight or easily, and with the congressional history of this, even just moving those chemicals around to get them to certain destruction sites was a controversial thing because who wants a trainload of chemical weapons passing through their community? These were the kinds of environmental and political issues you would expect in a project of this type. Not only is the United States committed to the destruction of our own stockpile, but we have given substantial funding and expertise to help other countries destroy their stockpiles, including the Russian Federation.

ACT: Are you confident the September deadline is firm?

Manso: Yes, we are. There are two sides to the deadline. We agreed to a compromise at the OPCW, in which September was the deadline. But my understanding, and again the experts on this are over at [the U.S. Department of Defense], and what they tell me is we’re on track. In fact, we have destroyed more than 99 percent of the U.S. stockpile.

ACT: There are still four countries outside the CWC: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. Can you bring them into the fold?

Manso: The United States is committed to universality, so we’d like to see everybody in. I do think it’s different for each country. South Sudan is working with a number of other participating states on developing its national legislation. My impression is that this is a capacity issue. It’s a new country, it’s a new government. I don’t think they have a political problem with acceding to the CWC, but they want to develop the capability so they’re able to say they can fulfill their obligations. South Sudan’s accession is a work in progress; I would not call it a problem.

North Korea, that is a problem. They’re not inclined to join. They probably have a very big stockpile, and it’s part of a much bigger problem that goes beyond just the OPCW. I think what we can do in partnership with the OPCW Technical Secretariat is stay ready so that when the U.S. stockpile destruction is over, the OPCW maintains the expertise to verify destruction so that they could help the North Koreans, should that ever come to pass.

That leaves us with Egypt and Israel. I think there the likely scenario would be that they both decide to join the CWC at the same time. Given the larger dynamics of the politics in the Middle East, that’s a tough one. But that’s the broad expectation, that when the politics are ripe, we could get both of them in. We would be happy to work with our Egyptian and Israeli friends on this.

ACT: You’ve been very supportive of the involvement of NGOs in the CWC and the OPCW, although some states-parties have put up roadblocks. What would it take for the CWC and the OPCW to become more inclusive of civil society?

Manso: Not just the United States. There are many countries that are very supportive of including NGOs. One thing we did at the last conference of the states-parties was, together with Canada, Norway, Germany, and the European Union, organize a series of events outside of the conference hall. We were able to invite those NGOs that had been blocked and also the NGOs that were in the hall, so the NGOs could talk with each other through organized programs. I certainly think that more could be done along those lines, and maybe we could have—these are just ideas—a one-day meeting with NGOs and civil society before important OPCW meetings. As long as you don’t have it on the premises of the conference, NGOs could participate, and nobody could block them. Under the current OPCW guidelines, and it’s going to be hard to change them because of the nature of international organizations, there is the possibility to block NGOs from participating in the [conference] hallway, but you can’t block them from showing up in The Hague and interacting with delegations.

Then maybe we can incrementally modify and improve the guidelines so it gets a little bit harder to block NGOs. A lot of organizations have this problem. It’s not unique to the OPCW, but there is a group of delegations that are committed to immediate relief, by doing events for NGOs connected to the meetings but not in the meeting hall so they can’t be blocked. They are also committed to incremental improvements in the guidelines so that we can better interact with NGOs. It should be one of the topics at the review conference: how do we improve our connection to civil society. NGOs are part of civil society, but that could also include academics and industry representatives. I mean we should be able to have fluid interaction with civil society.

ACT: Have you set up those kinds of side meetings for the May review conference?

Manso: We’re talking about them right now, and I would think that we’ll get serious about planning them right after the Executive Council session, which is on March 14–17. The only thing I’d add is that this administration is very committed to arms control. The United States wants to maintain a leadership position in arms control. We want to see it advance, even understanding that the overall geopolitical framework is not always the easiest. But we remain committed to arms control in general and the OPCW specifically. The whole idea of using the review conference to strengthen the OPCW, enhance its capabilities, enhance the norm against chemical weapons use, all of that is part of the broader policy.

ACT: As we discussed, Russia is a problem, but does China work with you?

Manso: I will say China does sometimes support the Russians. Depends on the issue, but not every time. We can certainly talk to our Chinese colleagues, absolutely.


Despite chemical weapons violations by Russia and Syria, Manso is bullish about the treaty and its impact.


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