“For 50 years, the Arms Control Association has educated citizens around the world to help create broad support for U.S.-led arms control and nonproliferation achievements.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
The United States and the Americas

U.S. Arms Sales Under Review

March 2021
By Jeff Abramson

In a significant reversal from the Trump administration, President Joe Biden said that the United States would end its support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” His announcement came a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated that the administration was pausing recent arms sales in order to review them, putting in question the fate of billions of dollars of Trump-era deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Biden administration decision to end U.S. support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales, will affect the transfer of certain Raytheon Technologies munitions, including the proposed sale of 7,000 Paveway IV smart bombs for $478 million to Saudi Arabia. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)During his first major foreign policy address, delivered from the State Department on Feb. 4, Biden also pledged support for a ceasefire and revitalizing peace talks between warring factions in Yemen, including through the appointment a special envoy to the conflict. On Feb. 16, the State Department lifted the Jan. 19 designation of one of the major actors, the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization. The designation was one of the last acts by the Trump administration related to the conflict.

Writ large, the break with the previous administration's approach was expected based on pledges made by Biden to reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia. The administration has been short on specifics about the scope of weapons halted and duration of the review, but National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Feb. 4 that they did include precision-guided munitions sales to Riyadh that the Trump administration notified to Congress in late December. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Precision-guided munitions have been particularly controversial in recent years, with President Donald Trump vetoing joint resolutions from Congress to block their sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2019. (See ACT, September 2019.)

On Jan. 15, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) introduced a joint resolution of disapproval to block the precision-guided munitions sales. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) had introduced a similar resolution Jan. 1. Although the 30-day initial review period had passed before the administration could move forward, such resolutions if they are approved by the House and Senate are binding if the administration does not move ahead with concluding letters of offer and acceptance. At present, there are no indications that Congress is likely to take up such resolutions, especially given Biden's indication he was stopping the sales.

But Biden indicated on Feb. 4 that the United States would continue to support Saudi Arabia “to defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity,” pointing to threats from “Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.” Exactly what this would mean in terms of arms transfers is not clear, leading to questions of how to define “relevant” arms sales that Biden promised to stop. Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), have called for stopping all arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

On Feb. 11, more than 75 civil society organizations and experts issued a letter detailing $36.5 billion in arms sales and services to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they believe should be considered relevant to "offensive operations" and permanently halted.

The Biden administration is also reviewing major arms sales to the UAE that were highly controversial. Sullivan said on Feb. 4 that the administration had spoken with senior UAE officials about the review and was “pursuing a policy of ‘no surprises’ when it comes to these types of actions so they understand that this is happening and they understand our reasoning and rationale for it.”

In December, the Senate narrowly failed to pass resolutions of disapproval on portions of a $23 billion package for which the Trump administration notified Congress a month earlier. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) On the day of Biden's inauguration, reports emerged that the Trump administration had concluded agreements with Abu Dhabi for F-35s and armed drones, possibly just an hour before Biden was sworn into office.

In November, Trump notified Congress of potential sales of up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones valued at $3 billion, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles valued at $490 million.

The Biden administration has not entirely stopped arms sales during the review. By the end of February, the administration had notified Congress of more than $500 million combined in potential arms sales to Chile, Egypt, Finland, Jordan, and NATO members.

Biden’s actions have taken place as international concern about arms sales to states involved in the war in Yemen is growing. In January, Italy permanently revoked existing licenses to export more than 12,000 bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, making permanent a suspension that had been announced in 2019, while continuing to deny any new licenses.

On Feb. 11, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that welcomed the U.S. actions and reiterated its call “for an EU-wide ban on the export, sale, update and maintenance of any form of security equipment to members of the coalition, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, given the serious breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law committed in Yemen.”

President Biden announced an end to support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

AI Commission Warns of Escalatory Dangers

March 2021
By Michael T. Klare

For the past two years, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI), established by Congress, has been laboring to develop strategies for the rapid integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into U.S. military operations.

Inside the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command Integrated Cyber Center and Joint Operations Center. (Photo credit: NSA) On Mar. 1, the commission is poised to deliver its final report to Congress and the White House. From the very start, this effort has been deemed an essential drive to ensure U.S. leadership in what is viewed as a competitive struggle with potential adversaries, presumably China and Russia, to weaponize advances in AI.

According to its charter, embedded in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, the NSCAI was enjoined to consider the “means and methods for the United States to maintain a technological advantage in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other associated technologies related to national security and defense.”

To allow the public a final opportunity to weigh in on its findings, the NSCAI released a draft of its final report at the beginning of January and discussed it at a virtual plenary meeting Jan. 25. Three main themes emerge from the draft report and the public comments of the commissioners: (1) AI constitutes a “breakthrough” technology that will transform all aspects of human endeavor, including warfare; (2) the United States risks losing out to China and Russia in the competitive struggle to harness AI for military purposes, putting the nation’s security at risk; and (3) as a consequence, the federal government must play a far more assertive role in mobilizing the nation’s scientific and technical talent to accelerate the utilization of AI by the military.

The report exudes a distinct Cold War character in the degree to which it portrays AI as the determining factor in the outcome of future conflicts. Whereas competition involving nuclear-armed ballistic missiles was the issue of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War era, the NSCAI warns that a potential adversary—in this case, China—could overtake the United States in mastering the application of AI for military purposes.

“In the future, warfare will pit algorithm against algorithm,” the report states. “The sources of battlefield advantage will shift from traditional factors like force size and levels of armaments, to factors like superior data collection and assimilation, connectivity, computing power, algorithms, and system security.”

Although the United States enjoys some advantages in this new mode of warfare, the report argues, it risks losing out to China over the long run. “China is already an AI peer, and it is more technically advanced in some applications,” it asserts. “Within the next decade, China could surpass the United States as the world’s AI superpower.”

To prevent this from happening, the NSCAI report argues the United States must accelerate its efforts to exploit advances in computing science for military purposes. As most of the nation’s computing expertise is concentrated in academia and the private sector, much of the report is devoted to proposals for harnessing that talent for military purposes. But it also addresses several issues of deep concern to the arms control community, notably autonomous weapons and nuclear escalation.

Claiming that autonomy will play a critical role in future military operations and that Russia and China, unlike the United States, cannot be relied on to follow ethical standards in the use of autonomous weapon systems on the battlefield, the commission rules out U.S. adherence to any binding international prohibition on the deployment of such systems.

In contrast to those in the human rights and arms control community who warn that fully autonomous weapons cannot be trusted to comply with the laws of war and international humanitarian law, the final report affirms that “properly designed and tested AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems have been and can continue to be used in ways which are consistent” with international humanitarian law. A treaty banning the use of such systems, the NSCAI report contends, would deny the United States and its allies the benefit of employing such systems in future conflicts while having zero impact on its adversaries, as “commitments from states such as Russia or China likely would be empty ones.”

But in one area—the use of AI in battlefield decision-making—the report does express concern about the implications of its rapid weaponization.

“While the [c]ommission believes that properly designed, tested, and utilized AI-enabled and autonomous weapon systems will bring substantial military and even humanitarian benefit,” it states, “the unchecked global use of such systems potentially risks unintended conflict escalation and crisis instability.”

This section of the report echoes statements to the commission made by a group of arms control experts in an informal dialogue with commission representatives organized by the Arms Control Association on Nov. 24, 2020.

On that occasion, the arms control experts argued that excessive reliance on AI-enabled command-and-control systems in the heat of battle could result in precipitous escalatory actions, possibly leading to the early and unintended use of nuclear weapons, a danger likely to be compounded when commanders on both sides relied on such systems for combat decision-making and the resulting velocity of battle exceeded human ability to comprehend the action and avert bad outcomes.

To prevent this from happening, the arms control experts insisted on the importance of retaining human control over all decisions involving nuclear weapons and called for the insertion of automated “tripwires” in advanced command-and-control systems to disallow escalatory moves without human approval.

Recognizing that these escalatory dangers are just as likely to arise from the automation of Chinese and Russian command-and-control systems, the arms control experts proposed that the United States and Russia discuss these risks in their future strategic security dialogues and that such talks be conducted with China.

All of these recommendations were incorporated into the commission’s final report in one form or another.

Advisory panel pushes the U.S. military to accelerate work on AI-enabled systems but also calls for restraint measures.

CBO Projects Skyrocketing Missile Defense Costs

March 2021
By Nicholas Smith Adamopoulos

A new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) indicates that U.S. expenditures on missile defense from 2020 to 2029 may reach $176 billion, a 40 percent increase from an earlier estimate. The CBO warns that, in light of possible future changes to missile defense plans, the new estimate comes with “substantial uncertainty.”

From left, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan; and David L. Norquist, DOD's comptroller and chief financial officer, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the fiscal year 2020 defense budget request at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, March 14, 2019. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of Defense)The new 10-year estimate covers costs associated with research, development, procurement, sustainment, and operation of missile defenses and leaves out costs associated with assets such as early-warning radars or satellites. The $176 billion price tag is $50 billion higher than the CBO estimate of the 2017–2026 costs presented in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget submission.

Published Jan. 13, the CBO report indicates that although the Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review (MDR) was not published until January 2019, the majority of the work was completed in the fall of 2017. The increase in cost from the 2017 plan to the 2020 plan likely stems from changes to missile defense planning that were incorporated into the budget prior to the MDR’s publication.

Although the report’s 10-year cost estimate only includes programs mentioned in the 2020 budget request, the MDR identified a number of optional program expansions, potentially further increasing missile defense spending in the near future. (See ACT, March 2019.) The CBO estimates that the introduction of 40 new interceptors to the existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) site at Fort Greely, Alaska, would cost an additional $5 billion, while a third GMD site with 20 interceptor silos is estimated to cost $4 billion to establish and $80 million a year to operate. (See ACT, May 2017.)

The MDR also requested further study on expanding other missile defense programs, including investigating the purchase of additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries. The CBO estimates that each battery would cost $800 million to procure and $30 million per year to operate.

THAAD batteries would provide regional defense capabilities against missiles in the terminal phase of their trajectory, but the MDR also called for studying the feasibility of outfitting F-35 aircraft with the capability to intercept missiles in their boost phase. Not only would such a program be extremely costly—the CBO estimates missile development would cost $10–20 billion—but the report also notes that geographic limitations would make boost-phase defenses impossible against all but small states such as North Korea.

The CBO further warns that its estimates of missile defense expenditures are subject to a great deal of uncertainty, due in no small part to ambiguity surrounding the future capabilities of adversaries’ missile programs. Although the MDR directed the Pentagon to begin studying potential solutions for defenses against hypersonic missiles, the CBO was unable to produce a cost estimate for such programs.

The CBO asserts that any defense against hypersonic weapons would likely require a robust space-based sensor system such as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) currently under development by the Missile Defense Agency. The CBO reported it did not have sufficient details necessary to estimate the full cost of a space-based hypersonic tracking system. But since the publication of the CBO report, contracts have been awarded to Northrop Grumman ($155 million) and L3Harris ($121 million) for the construction of prototype HBTSS satellites.

The CBO published a second report on missile defense in February titled “National Cruise Missile Defense: Issues and Alternatives,” which is also skeptical about the feasibility of a potential nationwide cruise missile defense network and the likelihood that cruise missiles would be the weapon of choice by an adversary for a large-scale attack on the United States. The CBO estimates that the 20-year costs of a complete cruise missile defense system for the contiguous United States would be $75–465 billion. There are fewer technological barriers to a homeland cruise missile defense network compared to ballistic or hypersonic missile defense, but the CBO questions whether the benefits of national cruise missile defense are worth the enormous financial costs.

U.S. expenditures on missile defense from 2020 to 2029 may reach $176 billion, a 40 percent increase from an earlier estimate.

No Deal Yet as New START Expiration Nears

January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

With the sole agreement limiting U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals set to expire in early February, Russia has repeated its offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). President Joe Biden has said that he will seek to extend the agreement, but the incoming administration has yet to decide on the length of an extension to seek.

Toward the end of 2020, Russian officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, reaffirmed Russia's willingness to extend New START, but raised the prospect that there was insufficient time to do so. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)“Russia is in favor of extending this treaty for five years without additional conditions,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Nov. 30. In his annual end-of-year news conference on Dec. 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an extension of the treaty for at least one year. New START allows for an extension of up to five years so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents mutually agree to it.

Biden’s advisers continue to consider the length of extension the incoming administration should pursue, with Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan saying Jan. 3 that "right out of the gate in the early days and weeks of the administration...we will have to look at extending that treaty in the interests of the United States." Nearly 30 U.S. arms control experts in a Nov. 30 letter urged Biden to agree to a full five-year extension without conditions as one of his first priorities.

After the U.S. presidential election, the Trump administration and Russia signaled a willingness to reach a deal on extension based on proposals exchanged in October. (See ACT, December 2020.) Washington proposed a politically binding one-year extension of New START and a one-year freeze on the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads of any type at current levels, as well as some type of verification plan for the freeze. Russia, which had called for a five-year extension of New START for much of 2020, countered with a one-year extension and a one-year warhead freeze so long as Washington put forward no other conditions, such as on verification.

Putin said on Dec. 17 that Russia remains open to dialogue regarding the treaty and awaits a response from Washington.

Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, replied on Twitter that the Trump administration has responded five times “to meet to finalize the freeze/extension deal to which Putin agreed” but that the Russian Foreign Ministry rejected all the meetings.

Ryabkov responded to Billingslea that Russia “offered [the United States] to agree on proposal by President Putin 25 times.... Instead of accepting this simple scheme they’re making unacceptable demands.”

The fate of the treaty now rests on the incoming Biden administration and Russia. The two sides will have just 16 days to seal an extension before the treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021.

Billingslea insisted in remarks given on Nov. 17, published on Dec. 8, that the Trump administration’s proposal “is now the de minimis threshold for all future nuclear arms control deals with Russia.”

“Any future deal which fails to cap all warheads should be regarded as an abject failure,” he continued. “Any simple extension of New START without capitalizing on Putin’s acquiescence to an overall warhead limit would demonstrate a profound lack of negotiating acumen.”

Billingslea said that the two countries “are at the brink” of agreement and that there “is still time to hammer out” the details.

Trump administration critics have argued that such a freeze has never been done previously and that there is not enough time to reach agreement on key details. They claim that the incoming administration should not feel bound to a deal that might break new ground with respect to a warhead freeze but has not been officially agreed to and would only last a year in any event.

The details yet to be finalized include the definition of “warhead,” stockpile declarations, data exchanges, and a plan for verification of the freeze. (See ACT, October 2020.) “All we need to do is define what we are freezing [and] the cap level and start verification talks,” Billingslea tweeted on Dec. 17.

U.S. and Russian officials have said that the Trump administration sought a verification approach outside warhead production and disassembly sites known as portal monitoring. Russia has adamantly objected to this approach.

Meanwhile, in the event an agreement on extension is reached between the Biden administration and Moscow, it remains to be seen how Russia will seek to initially implement an extension given that Russian law requires approval by the Russian parliament.

Ryabkov said on Dec. 7 that, “for Russia to extend [New START] would mean to go through numerous steps…that equals to the formal ratification of a treaty.”

“We are prepared to…do our utmost to be there in time,” he said, but “the situation is challenging, it’s quite a demanding one.”

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.a

The fate of the only treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons remains in question as the Trump administration closes.

U.S. Defense Bill Drops Nuclear Testing

January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

U.S. lawmakers agreed in December to drop dueling House and Senate defense bill provisions on nuclear test explosions prompted by reports last spring that the Trump administration had discussed a resumption of such testing.

Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) praised Congress for refusing to authorize or appropriate funds for renewed U.S. nuclear testing. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)The Democratic-led House in July adopted in its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) an amendment offered by Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) to prohibit any fiscal year 2021 or prior-year funding “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.” (See ACT, September 2020.)

The House version of the defense and energy and water appropriations bills included a similar prohibition.

The Republican-led Senate version of the authorization bill, however, included an amendment introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to make $10 million available for the United States to conduct a nuclear test. (See ACT, June 2020.)

The final version of the authorization and appropriations bills ultimately eliminated all of the provisions.

McAdams said the final outcome would make the resumption of nuclear testing less likely.

“Our success in this fight means that our citizens won’t have to face the prospect of more dangerous and unnecessary explosive nuclear weapons testing in our backyard,” said McAdams in a Dec. 4 statement. “The United States maintains the most effective and capable nuclear deterrent in the world. We have done so while observing a moratorium on explosive nuclear testing for the past three decades.”

Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden criticized the Trump administration last May for debating a return to nuclear testing, calling the possibility “as reckless as it is dangerous.”

Congress initially passed the final defense authorization bill in December by overwhelming veto-proof majorities, but Trump vetoed the bill Dec. 23. The Senate and House overrode the veto on Dec. 28 and Jan. 1, respectively.

Trump signed omnibus appropriations legislation on Dec. 27, and overall, Congress provided $741 billion for national defense programs, the same as the budget request.

In other areas, the sprawling appropriations law approved the vast majority of the Trump administration’s proposed $44.5 billion budget request for programs to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads and supporting infrastructure, but not without controversy.

The law provided $4.4 billion for building a fleet of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, a slight increase of about $100 million above the budget request. The bill noted that “challenges have occurred in certain design, prototyping, and advance construction efforts of the program” and that “the supplier industrial base presents the most significant risk to the program.”

The law approved $2.8 billion to continue development of the Air Force’s B-21 Raider strategic bomber, the same as the budget request; $1.5 billion for the program to build the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was a decrease of $75 million from the budget request; and $385 million for the Long-Range Standoff Weapon program to replace the existing air-launched cruise missile, $89 million less than the budget request.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptor launches from Kwajalein Atoll in a 2019 test. The defense appropriations bill funded the Missile Defense Agency with 12 percent more than the Trump administration requested. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency) The Air Force in September awarded a $13.3 billion development contract to Northrop Grumman to build the new ICBM system. (See ACT, October 2020.)

The funding reduction for the new cruise missile appears to reflect the Air Force’s decision last spring to continue development with Raytheon as the sole contractor. (See ACT, May 2020.) The service is planning to award the main development contract for the missile in May, about nine months earlier than planned, according to a Nov. 18 Inside Defense report.

The initial House and Senate versions of the appropriations and authorization bills largely aligned on funding to modernize the nuclear triad, but the budget request for and oversight of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was far more contentious.

The Trump administration last February requested $15.6 billion for the agency’s nuclear weapons activities account, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 appropriations and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request.

In the wake of an internal Trump administration dispute about the appropriate size of the NNSA weapons budget request, the Senate version of the defense authorization bill included provisions that would give the Pentagon’s Nuclear Weapons Council, a body that coordinates the Defense and Energy departments’ nuclear weapons stockpile responsibilities, a much greater say in the annual formulation of the NNSA budget. (See ACT, March 2020.)

In addition to proving controversial in the Senate, the language prompted strong pushback from the House. The lower chamber’s authorization bill included a provision that would make the energy secretary a member of the council, and its appropriations legislation sought to bar the council from expanding its budget role.

The final version of the authorization bill, however, retained much of the Senate language, and the House provisions were dropped from the final appropriations bills.

Meanwhile, the law provided $15.4 billion for the NNSA’s nuclear weapons activities, a decrease of $257 million from the budget request but an increase of $2.9 billion from last year’s appropriation. The law fully funds the $53 million NNSA request to begin early work on a new-design submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead dubbed the W93 and the $1.5 billion NNSA request to increase the rate of production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year.

In contrast, the House had proposed $13.7 billion for weapons activities, including no funding for the W93, and a cut of several hundred million dollars for pit production.

Lawmakers poured cold water on the Pentagon’s proposal to supplement existing U.S. homeland missile defenses by modifying existing systems.

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) requested $274 million in fiscal year 2021 to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to provide an additional layer of defense against limited ICBMs threats.

In the end, the law provided $49 million only for limited concept studies, a decrease of $225 million from the budget request.

The final authorization bill authorized a similar funding reduction and conditioned 50 percent of the remaining funds on the receipt of a report from the defense secretary and the MDA director detailing a description of the requirements for the layered missile defense proposal; a site-specific fielding plan that includes possible locations, the number and type of interceptors, and radars in each location; and a life-cycle cost estimate of different deployment options.

The law also required an assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency of how using the Aegis and THAAD systems “to conduct longer-range missile defense missions would be perceived by near-peer foreign countries and rogue nations” and how they “would likely respond to such deployments.”

The skepticism from Congress comes on the heels of a successful first intercept test of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile of an ICBM target on Nov. 17. (See ACT, December 2020.)

Critics have warned that an increase in the number of U.S. interceptors capable of intercepting ICBMs could exacerbate Russian and Chinese concerns about the threat the defenses pose to their nuclear deterrents and prompt them to take steps to counter new U.S. missile defenses.

The law provided $10.5 billion for the MDA, an increase of $1.3 billion from the budget request.

The appropriations include increases of $220 million to sustain the existing Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system based in Alaska and California, $194 million to develop a new next-generation homeland defense interceptor in the wake of the demise of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, and $76 million to buy an eighth THAAD battery.

Despite providing a funding boost for the GMD system, Congress raised concerns about the next-generation interceptor, which is not slated to be fielded until 2028 at the earliest. The authorization law requires an independent cost estimate and at least two successful flight intercept tests prior to beginning production of the new interceptor.

The bill also directed the MDA to develop, subject to the availability of appropriations, 20 interim homeland missile defense interceptors by 2026 that, “at minimum, meet the proposed capabilities of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program” and “leverage existing kill vehicle and booster technology.”

The appropriations law, however, did not provide any funding for such an interim interceptor. Moreover, the authorization bill allows the Pentagon to waive the requirement for the interceptor if development is not technically feasible, the interim capability is not in the national security interest of the United States, and the capability cannot be fielded at least two years before the next-generation interceptor.

Elsewhere in the appropriations bill, Congress provided no funding for the Marine Corps to assess the feasibility and utility of firing the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile from a ground launcher.

The Marine Corps had requested $125 million to purchase 48 Tomahawk missiles for this purpose. (See ACT, June 2020.) With an estimated range of between 1,250 and 2,500 kilometers, a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk would have violated the now-defunct 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the treaty in August 2019.

But the bill provided $88 million in initially unrequested Army funding to pursue development of a ground-launched midrange missile capability. (See ACT, October 2020.) The service last fall selected variants of the Tomahawk and the Navy’s Standard Missile-6 missiles to be part of an initial prototype scheduled to be fielded in 2023.

The appropriations law also increased funding for the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which seeks to counter weapons of mass destruction and related threats.

The Pentagon requested $239 million for the program in fiscal year 2021, a decrease of $135 million, or 36 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 appropriation, prompting alarm from members of Congress, former government officials, and nuclear security experts. (See ACT, April 2020.)

The appropriations bill provided $122 million in additional funding for the program, including an increase of $98 million for the program’s efforts to reduce the proliferation of biological weapons and facilitate detection and reporting of diseases caused by especially dangerous pathogens.

The authorization law also requires a report from the National Academy of Sciences on improving U.S. strategies “for preventing, countering, and responding to nuclear, biological, and chemical terrorism.”

The sprawling National Defense Authorization Act does not permit nuclear testing, but does strongly support expanded U.S. nuclear capabilities.

U.S. Selects Missiles for INF-Range Capability

January/February 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Army announced on Nov. 6 its selection of two missiles to serve as the basis for initial development of a conventional, ground-launched, midrange missile capability. Both missiles would have been prohibited under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which the United States withdrew in August 2019. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Sailors aboard the USS Barry prepare to fire a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile during a September 2020 exercise. The U.S. Army is considering using a variant of the missile as a land-based weapon that would have been banned by the INF Treaty.  (Photo: Samuel Hardgrove/U.S. Navy)Lockheed Martin won a sole source contract worth $339 million to design, develop, and deliver the Mid-Range Capability (MRC) prototype to be fielded in fiscal year 2023.

“Following a broad review of joint service technologies potentially applicable to MRC, the Army has selected variants of the Navy [Standard Missile-6 (SM-6)] and Tomahawk missiles to be part of the initial prototype,” said the statement from the U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office.

The SM-6 was developed as a missile defense interceptor and first deployed in 2013. The Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile has been in service since the 1980s, although some variants, such as those carrying a nuclear payload, have been retired.

“The MRC supports one of the Army’s chief roles in multi-domain operations: to use strategic fires to penetrate and disintegrate enemy layered defense systems, creating windows of opportunity for exploitation by the joint force,” the office said.

The Army told Breaking Defense that it does not plan to modify either of the Navy missiles. By selecting variants of the two missiles, the Army would be able to purchase the latest models: the SM-6 Block IB, estimated to complete development in 2024, and the Tomahawk Block Va, known as the Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST), which began production in 2020.

Since the demise of the INF Treaty last year, the Trump administration has been vocal about quickly developing and deploying a ground-launched, intermediate-range missile capability to counter Russia and China in particular. (See ACT, October 2020.) But where such missiles might be based remains unclear, as countries, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea, have downplayed the possibility of hosting them. (See ACT, September 2020.)

Signed in 1987, the now defunct INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

The U.S. Army has identified two Navy missiles to serve as the basis for a new land-based system that would have violated the INF Treaty.

UAE Arms Sales Survive Senate Vote

January/February 2021
By Alexander Bertschi Wrigley and Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration's controversial proposal to sell more than $23 billion of arms and related services to the United Arab Emirates moved ahead after two bipartisan joint resolutions of disapproval fell short of a majority in Senate votes in December. The next step in the process is to negotiate contracts between Washington and Abu Dhabi, a task that will likely conclude with the incoming Biden administration, which has not indicated a stance on the sales.

A technician examines an MQ-9 Reaper drone at an Afghan air base in 2014. Trump administration plans to sell Reapers to the United Arab Emirates were not stopped by Congress, but still face an uncertain future. (Photo: Evelyn Chavez/U.S. Air Force)The sale includes up to 50 F-35 aircraft valued at $10.4 billion, up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones valued at $3 billion, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions valued at $10 billion, as well as a revision to a 2018 notification for additional Sidewinder air-to-air missiles valued at $490 million. (See ACT, December 2020.) Although resolutions of disapproval were introduced on all these weapons, votes were taken only on blocking the F-35s and armed drones, garnering yes-no votes of 47–49 and 46–50, respectively.

The votes fell largely along party lines. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) joined all but one of the Republican senators in voting against both joint resolutions of disapproval. Newly elected Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) also voted against the resolution on the proposed sale of armed drones. All other Democrats present voted in favor of both resolutions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the only Republican to vote in favor of the resolutions, which he co-sponsored.

The votes came just days before the end of a 30-day window during which Congress could pass joint resolutions to prevent the administration from moving toward formally concluding the sales by negotiating a letter of offer and acceptance. In theory, Congress could still pass such resolutions until the letter is concluded, which often takes months or years to negotiate, but the House did not take up its versions of the resolutions.

As of Jan. 9, the U.S. State Department was continuing to work on the letter, according to R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. With time running out on the Trump administration, however, the future of the arms transfers is uncertain, as there has been no clear indication of how the incoming administration will approach the sale. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was the only Democratic senator not present for the vote.

In the last weeks of December, the Trump administration also notified Congress of additional major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which have been highly controversial during his presidential term. (See ACT, September 2019.) The 30-day congressional review period on those potential sales will not end until after President Joe Biden's inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20, leaving it to the incoming administration to decide whether to issue licenses or conclude a letter. The proposed sales include 7,500 precision-guided, air-to-ground munitions valued at up to $478 million, and 3,000 small-diameter bombs for $290 million.

Biden has already noted his desire to rethink the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, stating in October that, “under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”

Although the UAE has not been as visible an actor in Yemen to the U.S. public, Abu Dhabi has deployed ground and air forces to Yemen over the past six years. It has scaled back involvement of its own personnel, but continues to work through proxies in the country.

Concerns regarding the arms sales centered on their potential impact on Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region and Iranian behavior, as well as the UAE’s role in continuing wars in Yemen and Libya, with many human rights and arms control groups joining in opposing the deal.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the resolutions, raised the concern that the Trump administration was expediting the sales and sidelining Congress on what would be one of the largest arms packages ever sold by the United States, saying shortly after the vote that “rushing through massive sales of Reaper drones and our most advanced fighter jets to the Middle East just makes defense companies richer and international security poorer.” He added, “I am eager to work with the incoming administration to take a closer look at each of these sales before any transfers are completed.”

Congress rejected efforts to curtail U.S. arms transfers to the United Arab Emirates, but the future of the deal is uncertain with the incoming Biden administration.

U.S. Urges CW Norms for Global Partnership

January/February 2021
By Julia Masterson

The United States used its 2020 chair of a multilateral nonproliferation forum to prioritize restoring the norm against chemical weapons usage. Nations should work toward “calling out abuses where they occur, imposing consequences for such atrocities, and standing together to reestablish and reinforce global [chemical weapons] nonproliferation norms,” said Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, in remarks to a Nov. 18 virtual plenary meeting of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

During a November 2020 meeting, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford, shown testifying in 2019, urged members of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction to strengthen norms against chemical attacks. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)The partnership was created in 2002 and comprises 30 member states plus the European Union. Leadership of the group rotates annually, and a U.S. State Department official told Arms Control Today in June 2020 that, as chair, the United States aimed to make restoration of the norm against chemical weapons use a “centerpiece” of the partnership’s work in 2020. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

Toward this end, Ford told the plenary the State Department Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, which he leads, has taken steps to strengthen the partnership’s work, including by organizing a series of tabletop exercises designed to learn from and prevent state-sponsored assassinations using chemical agents. The exercises focused on steps to “overcome active measures to obfuscate the origin of such an attack and how to protect the credibility of agencies investigating such incidents,” Ford said. The exercises were likely inspired in part by the recent poisoning of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny using a Novichok nerve agent. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Navalny’s poisoning, alongside the assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal using Novichok in 2018 and the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, using VX in 2017, highlight the erosion of the global norm against chemical weapons use.

According to Ford, increased action can be taken by the Global Partnership to condemn instances of chemical weapons use and to hold perpetrators accountable. Specifically, he noted that several partnership member states are not yet involved with the Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, an initiative established by France in 2018 to name, shame, and sanction those in violation of the norm against chemical weapons. Ford also invited Global Partnership members who participate in the Australia Group export control regime to support the group’s efforts to shore up export controls and other counterproliferation measures designed to prevent the spread of chemical and biological weapons.

Acknowledging the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and its monitoring body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ford added that “all countries who take seriously the dangers of chemical weapons and do not wish to be seen as helping the perpetrators of [chemical weapons] atrocities hide from accountability should also strongly support the OPCW itself.” He said Global Partnership member states should maintain strong support for the OPCW Technical Secretariat and its Investigation and Identification Team, which has a mandate to investigate and attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria. (See ACT, July/August 2018.)

The year-long U.S. chair of a multilateral nonproliferation forum focused on reinforcing norms against the use of chemical weapons.

U.S. Completes Open Skies Treaty Withdrawal

December 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States formally withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty on Nov. 22 despite domestic and international pressure to remain party to the accord, including from President-elect Joe Biden and numerous U.S. allies.

The United States has used OC-135 aircraft to conduct overflights as part of the Open Skies Treaty. The U.S. withdrawal from the treaty may trigger plans to dispose of the aircraft. (Photo: Perry Aston/U.S. Air Force)“Today, pursuant to earlier notice provided, the United States withdrawal from the Treaty on Open Skies is now effective,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a tweet. “America is more secure because of it, as Russia remains in noncompliance with its obligations.”

In May, Pompeo issued the six-month notice of withdrawal as required by the treaty, citing concerns over Russian compliance with and implementation of the treaty as grounds for the U.S. withdrawal. (See ACT, June 2020.)

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations that it has violated the treaty and said in a Nov. 22 statement that all options remain on the table regarding its continued participation. The statement followed Nov. 12 remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in which he outlined in stark terms the circumstances in which Moscow might remain party to the treaty.

“If they [the remaining states-parties] want to keep the treaty in force, and if we choose to remain part of it, we will require our partners to legally confirm in writing that, first, they will not prohibit flights over any part of their territory regardless of whether U.S. bases are located there or not,” he said.

He added that the parties must also “strongly commit not to transmit data on flights over Russia to the United States.”

Under the treaty, all imagery collected from overflights is made available to any of the states-parties. During the treaty’s fourth review conference in October, Russia prioritized the provisions of the pact that restrict the distribution of treaty data to states-parties only. (See ACT, November 2020.)

A senior U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal that the United States is already moving to dispose of the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used for treaty overflight missions.

“We’ve started liquidating the equipment,” the official said. The planes “are really old and cost-prohibitive for us to maintain. We don’t have a use for them anymore.”

An Air Force official told Defense News on Nov. 24 that a final decision on the disposition of the aircraft has not yet been made.

Congress appropriated $41.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to continue modernizing the aircraft, and the Air Force was planning to seek $76 million in fiscal year 2021 to replace the planes. But the Defense Department halted the funding earlier this year. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Following the U.S. withdrawal, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.) issued a Nov. 23 statement maintaining that the Trump administration broke the law when it neglected to notify Congress 120 days before issuing an intent to withdraw from the treaty as required by the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“President Trump is attempting to burn down our critical institutions on his way out the door,” they wrote. “In doing so, he not only jeopardized U.S. national security, but he blatantly ignored and deliberately broke the law.”

In a Dec. 20, 2019 statement issued alongside his signature of the fiscal year 2020 authorization bill, Trump argued that the NDAA provision on the treaty raised constitutional concerns.

“I reiterate the longstanding understanding of the executive branch that these types of provisions encompass only actions for which such advance certification or notification is feasible and consistent with the president’s exclusive constitutional authorities as commander in chief and as the sole representative of the nation in foreign affairs,” the president said.

President-elect Joe Biden has expressed support for the treaty and condemned the administration’s decision to withdraw. But he has stopped short of committing to try to reenter the agreement when he takes office in January or arguing the United States still remains a state-party because the withdrawal was done in violation of the law.

If Biden did want to resume U.S. participation in the treaty, it is unclear whether and how he could do so.

In a statement to Arms Control Today, Monica Matoush, a Democratic spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee, did not address whether Biden should attempt to rejoin the agreement.

“The importance of alliances and confidence-building measures to support strategic stability in Europe in the face of Russian aggression must be a priority for the next administration, despite efforts over the past four years to undermine these relationships and dismantle agreements that uphold transatlantic stability,” she said.

Peter Jones, a former Canadian representative to the Open Skies Treaty negotiations, proposed on Nov. 12 that the remaining states-parties pause the treaty at one minute to midnight on Nov. 21 in order to prevent the Trump administration from withdrawing from the treaty and buy time for a new Biden administration to rescind the withdrawal.

“In effect, they would be ignoring the Trump deadline until the Biden administration was sworn in and could rescind the withdrawal,” he wrote. Although the proposal was reportedly discussed in Vienna, it did not come to fruition.

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

The U.S. withdrawal raises questions about the treaty’s future.

Biden Victory May Save Iran Nuclear Deal

December 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election increases the likelihood that the United States and Iran will quickly return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but Tehran says any formal U.S. reentry into the deal will need to be negotiated.

Vice President Joe Biden visits members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2015 to discuss the Iran nuclear deal. As president, he may seek to reverse the U.S. withdrawal from the deal, but the agreement does not contain provisions for such a move. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reimposed sanctions on Iran. (See ACT, June 2018.) Iran was abiding by the agreement’s nuclear restrictions at that time, but took steps beginning one year later to breach certain JCPOA’s limits in response to the U.S. sanctions campaign. (See ACT, June 2019.)

Although the Trump administration claimed its maximum pressure campaign was designed to push Iran to negotiate a new deal that addressed Tehran’s nuclear program and a range of other activities, Biden has stated a clear preference for restoring the JCPOA.

In a Sept. 13 CNN commentary, Biden wrote that “[i]f Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”

Iranian officials have rejected Trump’s push for negotiations on a new deal, but have said consistently that if Washington returns to full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, Iran will do likewise.

After Biden was projected the winner of the election, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran “has always adhered to its commitments when all sides responsibly implement” their JCPOA obligations.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif offered more detail on the Iranian position on Nov. 17, saying that a return to full implementation by the United States and Iran can be “done automatically” and “needs no negotiations.” However, Zarif said that if the United States wants to rejoin the JCPOA, Iran will be “ready to negotiate how” Washington can reenter. U.S. reentry, however, is “not a priority,” Zarif said.

The nuclear deal does not contain any provisions detailing what, if any, steps a state must take to rejoin the deal.

Zarif’s comments appeared to imply that Iran would be satisfied in the short term with Washington and Tehran fully implementing their obligations under the JCPOA without the United States being a state party and that Iran may try to impose conditions to a formal U.S. return.

Formally rejoining the JCPOA would give the United States certain privileges, such as participating in meetings of the Joint Commission, which oversees the agreement’s implementation, and having the power under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 to unilaterally trigger a reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran in the event of a violation.

Zarif’s comment about negotiating a return to the JCPOA may be motivated in part by concern that the United States would abuse the UN snapback privilege in the future. The Trump administration attempted to snap back sanctions on Iran earlier this year, despite having withdrawn from the JCPOA, but was opposed because the United States was no longer a participant in the nuclear deal. (See ACT, November 2020.)

It appears that each Biden and Rouhani have the authority to return their respective countries to compliance with the JCPOA, but some of the details and determining the sequencing may pose challenges.

For the United States to return to full compliance with the accord, the Biden administration would need to waive sanctions reimposed when Trump withdrew from the accord and determine if any of the additional sanctions imposed on Iran since May 2018 should be waived.

Iranian officials have called for all of the sanctions put in place by Trump since May 2018 to be lifted, including those imposed for non-nuclear issues, such as support for terrorism.

Nothing in the JCPOA prohibits the United States from imposing sanctions on Iran for non-nuclear activities, but Trump administration officials have indicated that some of these sanctions were put in place to complicate any future return to the JCPOA, suggesting that some of the designations may not have been made in good faith.

Despite this, the Biden administration may face opposition from Congress if it lifts designations on individuals and entities sanctioned under executive orders designed to prevent terrorism, for example.

The Biden administration may also need to make clear that it views Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and helps implement it, as intact. The Trump administration attempted to use a provision in Resolution 2231 to reimpose all prior UN sanctions on Tehran lifted as a result of the JCPOA in order to prevent the UN arms embargo on Iran from expiring in October. While Security Council members rejected the U.S. argument that it was entitled to snap back the UN sanctions, the Trump administration maintains that the measures were reimposed.

Rouhani appears to have support from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to return to compliance with the JCPOA, if the United States does likewise.

Saeed Khatizbadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, summarized Khamenei’s thinking about the future of the nuclear deal, noting that the United States must accept that it made mistakes, end its “economic warfare” against Iran, “implement [its] commitments” and then “compensate for the damages.” It is not clear what compensation Iran will seek, but the order of Khamenei’s steps and Zarif’s comments suggest that Tehran may seek compensation in the negotiations over U.S. reentry into the JCPOA, rather than as a condition for returning to compliance.

For Iran to return to compliance it will need to reverse its violations of the JCPOA. Most of the steps necessary could be accomplished quickly and must include shipping out or blending down uranium enriched in excess of the JCPOA’s limit on 300 kilograms of uranium-235 gas enriched to 3.67 percent, halting enrichment above 3.67 percent, halting enrichment at Fordow and removing all uranium from that location, and dismantling advanced centrifuges installed and operating in excess of JCPOA limits.

Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told Axios on Oct. 30 that Iran could take those steps in about four months.

A potentially more challenging question is how to address new advanced centrifuges Iran installed over the past year that are not covered by the JCPOA. The JCPOA allows Iran to introduce new centrifuges with permission of the Joint Commission, the body that oversees implementation of the JCPOA, but Iran did not seek such approval.

It is unclear if the parties to the JCPOA will ask Iran to dismantle the new machines or if Iran will be permitted to test them in restricted numbers.

President-elect Joe Biden has indicated his support for the 2015 nuclear deal, but going back may be complicated.


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