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

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
January/February 2017

January/February 2017

Edition Date: 
Thursday, January 12, 2017
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Nuclear Weapons: Key Decisions Will Shape the Size and Role of U.S. Nuclear Forces

January/February 2017

By Amy F. Woolf

Analysts seeking to divine the Trump administration’s approach to U.S. nuclear weapons policies have few clues to go on. During the campaign, Donald Trump’s comments were vague and often inconsistent, creating unexpected policy uncertainties as a new president and his national security team take office.1

When asked whether he supports a no-first-use policy, candidate Trump stated that he would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but then indicated that he would never take anything off the table. He seemed to question the foundation of U.S. alliances, when he indicated that he might not come to the aid of allies unless they agreed to pay the United States more for their defense, and to argue that some should acquire their own nuclear weapons rather than continue to rely on the United States for extended deterrence. He questioned the age and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons, but seemed unaware of existing plans to modernize these systems. The new administration’s transition website states that Trump “will ensure our strategic nuclear triad is modernized to ensure it continues to be an effective deterrent,”2 but this lacks details about the scope of the expected programs or the policies that will guide the use of U.S. nuclear weapons.

President-elect Donald Trump points to retired United States Marine Corps General James Mattis, who became his nominee for secretary of defense, as they pose for a photo November 19, 2016, before their meeting at Trump International Golf Club in New Jersey. Mattis has called for clarifying the role of nuclear weapons and considering whether to eliminate the land-based leg of the nuclear triad to reduce false-alarm risks. (Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Even his year-end tweet calling for the United States to “strengthen and expand” its nuclear forces lacked the clarity needed to understand whether he was supporting the ongoing modernization programs or suggesting a broader expansion of U.S. nuclear capability.

Each of the three presidents who have taken office since the end of the Cold War has sought to move the U.S. nuclear posture away from the Cold War legacy while addressing emerging nuclear challenges. During the Clinton administration, Pentagon officials initiated a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on their own; the Bush and Obama administrations did so in response to congressional direction. Although the three reviews each introduced new concepts and highlighted different goals, they pursued many similar objectives. Each review adjusted U.S. policy to recognize an improving relationship between the United States and Russia; each also called for reductions in the number of deployed nuclear weapons. They each argued that nuclear weapons continued to serve as a key element in U.S. national security strategy, but recognized that nuclear weapons would play a reduced role in that strategy. Each review also reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to extend deterrence to U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, and to varying degrees, each supported efforts to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and the U.S. nuclear infrastructure.

Congress has not mandated that the new Trump administration conduct a formal nuclear posture review, but the Pentagon likely will review U.S. nuclear weapons policies and programs in the coming months. This review would be useful for any new administration, given the changes in the international security environment since the Obama administration published its NPR Report in 2010, but may be particularly useful for an administration that seems interested in altering long-standing assumptions and approaches in a number of policy areas. 

As a result, the new administration is likely to examine the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy, the U.S. commitments to defend allies with nuclear and conventional weapons, and ongoing efforts to recapitalize U.S. delivery systems, refurbish U.S nuclear warheads, and rebuild the nuclear weapons complex.

Role of Nuclear Weapons

The post-Cold War decline in the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy began with the demise of the Soviet Union and the receding threat of global nuclear war, but has also reflected advances in U.S. conventional weapons and ballistic missile defenses. Retired Generals George Lee Butler, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Andrew Goodpaster, highlighted this change in congressional testimony in 1997, noting that “the roles of nuclear weapons for purposes of security have been sharply narrowed…. Now and in the future, they basically provide an option to respond to a nuclear threat or attack by others…. Conventional capabilities can provide a sufficient deterrent and defense against conventional forces.”3 

The Bush and Obama administrations each advanced this theme in their NPRs. They acknowledged that nuclear weapons would continue to play a role in providing stability and, if necessary, deterring major powers armed with nuclear weapons, but both also indicated that the United States would be able to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons as it grew more reliant on ballistic missile defenses and precision conventional weapons. The Bush administration captured this in its construct of a “new triad,” while the Obama administration described “regional security architectures.”4

The Obama administration also narrowed the role of nuclear weapons by adjusting U.S. declaratory policy. Although the administration was not ready to assert that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attack, it did declare in the 2010 NPR that the United States would “not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” U.S. conventional capabilities and ballistic missile defenses would be sufficient to deter and defend against chemical, conventional, and possibly biological threats from non-nuclear-weapon states.5 Press reports indicate that the Obama administration considered moving closer to the sole purpose declaration by adopting a no-first-use policy during its last few months in office, but rejected this change due to concerns about emerging regional security challenges and the effect the change might have on the credibility of U.S. assurances to its allies.

The Trump administration may wish to reconsider the adoption of a no-first-use or sole purpose policy. Those who support this change assert that U.S. conventional forces are more than sufficient to assure U.S. success in a non-nuclear conflict and that first use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed adversary risks uncontrolled escalation. Others, however, believe that the threat to use nuclear weapons may be needed to deter conventional conflict because an adversary might be more willing to launch a major conventional war if it believed it was free from the risk of nuclear retaliation. Thus, by leaving open the possibility of an extended conventional conflict, a no-first-use policy could undermine some allies’ confidence in U.S. commitment to come to their defense. 

It is unclear where a Trump administration would stand in this debate. During the campaign, Trump stated that he “would certainly not do first strike.” Yet, he also stated that “we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.”6 His nominee to become secretary of defense, retired General James Mattis, raised this question in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2015. He stated that the United States should “clearly establish the role of our nuclear weapons” and determine whether they “serve solely to deter nuclear war.” He did not offer his own views on the answer to that question.7

More broadly, the administration may consider whether the United States should enunciate a broader role for nuclear weapons in response to emerging trends in the international security environment. For example, North Korea has continued to advance its nuclear and missile programs. China’s growing military capabilities, its lack of transparency about its intentions, and its assertive claims to disputed maritime territories have also raised concerns about regional stability. Finally, Russia’s nuclear modernization programs, along with its aggression in Crimea and Ukraine and possible changes in its nuclear doctrine, have raised concerns for regional and global security.

Although many analysts consider the current U.S. nuclear posture sufficient to deter and respond to these challenges, others have argued that the United States should not only reconsider its declaratory policy, but also re-create the capabilities needed to employ nuclear weapons in a broader array of contingencies. A study completed in May 2015 argued that the United States should make it clear that “deterring nuclear attacks is not the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons” because maintaining ambiguity about the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons has a broader, intrinsic effect in deterring threats to the United States.8 This study and others have also recommended that the United States introduce new nuclear capabilities into its force structure and prepare for the limited use of these capabilities in regional conflicts. 

Trump seemed to endorse this type of approach in year-end comments, when he welcomed an arms race and claimed that “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them.” But, as is true for many of his statements on nuclear weapons, it is not clear whether he was simply adopting a position of nuclear strength or advocating for a more aggressive approach to U.S. nuclear policy.9

Extended Deterrence

Much of the debate about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy is wound into discussions about U.S. efforts to assure allies of its commitment to their defense. The goal of extending deterrence to U.S. allies has grown more prominent in the decades since the end of the Cold War. The Bush administration’s NPR Report listed “assurance of allies” as one of the key goals of U.S. nuclear posture; the Obama administration spoke of the need to provide reassurance to allies. Both administrations recognized that this reassurance derived from more than just nuclear capabilities, but both noted that the U.S. nuclear umbrella played a key role in convincing allies that the United States would come to their defense.

The United States has taken a number of recent steps to bolster its commitments to its allies in Europe and Asia. It has expanded its missile defense cooperation with allies in Asia and has deployed missile defense capabilities in Europe to support NATO. It has also worked with NATO through the European Reassurance Initiative to strengthen conventional capabilities in response to concerns about Russian activities in Crimea and Ukraine. Yet, the effort to reassure allies has also included a nuclear component. The United States has flown nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as a conventional B-1 bomber, out of Guam in the Pacific, and B-2 and B-52 bombers have participated in exercises in Europe and over the Korean peninsula. In addition, U.S. ballistic missile submarines have made port calls to Guam and the United Kingdom. 

At the Warsaw summit in July 2016, NATO members reaffirmed that the group remains a nuclear alliance and that its deterrence posture relies in part on U.S. nuclear weapons “forward-deployed in Europe.”10 Debates, common in the 2010-2012 time frame, over whether the United States should withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe have waned while NATO has refocused its attention on nuclear planning and exercises. 

At the same time, some analysts outside government, such as Matthew Kroenig, an adviser to several Republican presidential candidates, have suggested that the United States should expand the numbers and types of nuclear weapons deployed in Europe or even deploy these weapons at bases in new NATO nations, closer to Russia’s borders.11 Others such as Steven Pifer, who handled Russian and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, have rejected such actions, arguing that more nuclear weapons will do little to bolster NATO’s posture and that NATO would be better served by enhancing its conventional capabilities.12 Trump’s election may spur debate on that, as well as on whether the United States should expand its capabilities in Asia, possibly by reversing the 1991 decision to remove nuclear weapons from aircraft carriers so that the United States could forward deploy nuclear-capable aircraft in response to North Korean provocations.13 

During the presidential campaign, Trump questioned the value of U.S. alliance relationships in general and the relevance of NATO in particular. He argued that the United States was overextended around the world and that U.S. allies should contribute more toward their own defense or at least pay more for U.S. security guarantees. Further, he argued that the United States should pursue a more congenial relationship with Russia and noted that if Russia were to invade NATO states in the Baltics, the U.S. commitment to come to their defense would depend on whether they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Moreover, he suggested that some U.S. allies would be better served if they acquired their own nuclear weapons rather than relying on U.S. nuclear weapons for their defense.

It is difficult to know whether or how these ideas would translate into policy in a Trump administration. For example, if Trump pursued a new agreement to improve U.S.-Russian relations, Russia might insist that the United States address Russia’s concerns with NATO enlargement, U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, and U.S. missile defense capabilities deployed in Romania and Poland. If a Trump administration did not value the U.S. commitment to NATO or did not think that nuclear weapons or missile defenses were critical to sustaining the alliance, he might agree to change these deployments. On the other hand, if the administration decides to retain U.S. support for allies in Europe and Asia and to view Russian and Chinese actions as a challenge to U.S. allies, the new president might support efforts to bolster conventional and nuclear capabilities in both regions. 

Modernizing Nuclear Forces 

The United States is currently recapitalizing each leg of its nuclear triad (land-based ballistic missiles, sea-based ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers) and refurbishing many of the warheads carried by those systems.

Land-based missiles. The United States currently deploys approximately 450 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and will reduce that number to 400 missiles under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile is intended to replace Minuteman III missiles beginning in the late 2020s. The Air Force plans to acquire 642 missiles to support testing and the deployment of a force of 400 missiles.

Submarine-launched missiles. The United States currently deploys 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Each is equipped to carry 24 Trident II (D-5) missiles, but will carry only 20 under New START. The Navy plans to begin deployment of the new Columbia-class submarine in 2031. The Navy is extending the life of the D-5 missiles, and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency in the Department of Energy, is extending the life of the W76 warheads and beginning an alteration program on the W88 warheads, both of which are carried by D-5 missiles.

A B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer, and B-2 Spirit are parked on the flightline at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, August 10, 2016. This was the first time that all three types of the Air Force Global Strike Command’s strategic bombers were positioned for operations in the U.S. Pacific Command region. (Tech. Sgt. Richard Ebensberger/U.S. Air Force)Heavy bombers. The Air Force has 20 B-2 bombers, which can carry B61 and B83 nuclear bombs. The Air Force also maintains 76 B-52H bombers, which are equipped to carry nuclear or conventional air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). The Air Force is beginning the design and acquisition of a new heavy bomber, the B-21, that is expected to enter the fleet beginning in the mid-2020s.

Bomber weapons. The B61 bomb is undergoing a life extension program (LEP) that will enhance the bomb’s safety and security and use control features. Also, the Air Force is designing a new tail kit for the B61 to improve its accuracy. The first new model is scheduled to enter the force in 2020. The B83 bomb is likely to be retired around 2025, after the completion of the B61 LEP. The Air Force is hoping to replace the ALCMs carried by B-52 bombers with a new advanced long-range standoff cruise missile, with deployment beginning by 2030. The NNSA is conducting an LEP on the W80 warhead to provide a warhead for the new long-range standoff missile.

The Obama administration has offered strong support for these programs, with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter referring to the nuclear arsenal as “the bedrock” of U.S. security and the Pentagon’s “highest priority mission.” Carter has argued that all the recapitalization programs are necessary because “most of our nuclear weapon delivery systems have already been extended decades beyond their original expected service lives.”14 

Analysts outside government have questioned the administration’s plans, arguing that the United States can sustain deterrence with fewer warheads or fewer types of delivery vehicles. Moreover, they note that these modernization programs could detract from U.S. efforts to procure advanced conventional weapons. Cost estimates for the nuclear programs vary, but most indicate that the Pentagon would likely allocate $30-35 billion per year to these programs during the 2020s and into the 2030s, as many of the nuclear modernization programs advance to the procurement phase. Thus, the costs, according to Defense Department and some outside estimates, would rise from a current 3 to 4 percent of the Pentagon budget to 6 to 7 percent of the budget, which could force trade-offs with other programs reaching the procurement phase at the same time.


As a candidate, Trump proposed significant increases in the size and scope of many Pentagon activities, calling for greater numbers of troops, aircraft, and ships, among other things. Budget experts have estimated that the Pentagon may need to exceed the current, legally mandated budget caps by $55-60 billion per year to accommodate both the current plans outlined by the Obama Pentagon and the priorities identified by Trump.15

An unarmed Trident II D-5 missile launches from the ballistic-missile submarine USS Maryland off the coast of Florida on August 31, 2016. The test launch demonstrated the readiness of the submarine’s crew and the operational performance of its strategic weapons system before returning to full operations. (Photo credit: John Kowalski/U.S. Navy)Congress is likely to support some increases in defense spending, but it may not be willing to increase defense spending by the amounts needed to fund all the new priorities. Recent years have seen increased pressure in Congress to reduce budget deficits through cuts in governmental spending while reducing tax rates. Although many members may now support some increases in defense spending, this may not be sustainable as long as Congress continues to support lower tax rates. As the Congressional Budget Office has noted, in the long term, an aging population, rising health care costs, and the rising interest on the national debt will reduce the amount of funding available for discretionary spending, including defense spending, if tax revenues do not increase significantly.16 Consequently, pressure on the defense budget and the implicit trade-offs within that budget are likely to persist into the 2020s and 2030s. 

The new Trump administration may support ongoing nuclear modernization programs because Trump supported them during the campaign and the Pentagon’s current plans fully fund the programs over the next five to six years. Yet, the new administration may still face questions about the future of these programs, and about the size and structure of the U.S. nuclear arsenal more generally, if financial limits continue to force trade-offs in future defense budgets. Moreover, as these programs move through the design phase and into production, technical issues, management issues, and cost overruns common in large military procurement programs could lead to further delays and budget pressures.

As a first question, the administration could reconsider whether the United States needs to retain a triad of land-based, sea-based, and bomber-delivered weapons. Each of the preceding NPRs has supported the triad, noting, as was the case in the 2010 NPR, that “retaining all three triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities.” But Mattis, in his 2015 Senate testimony, raised the question of removing land-based missiles, a step that he speculated “would reduce the false alarm danger.”17

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry is among the outside experts who have argued that the United States can eliminate the ICBM leg of the triad to reduce costs and mitigate the risks of an accidental nuclear war without undermining deterrence because submarines and bombers should be sufficient.18 Although it seems unlikely that a new review would recommend a change in the triad, the question should not be out of bounds. 

Even if the Pentagon and therefore the Trump administration continue to support the triad, it may reconsider the scope and scale of the modernization programs. Analysts outside government have proposed a number of changes, including delays or reductions in the submarine program, delays in the bomber program, and elimination of the long-range standoff or Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent missile program, to reduce costs and ease financial pressures coming during the 2020s. Because the Trump administration is likely to propose significant increases in defense spending, however, it is not clear that the financial pressures will materialize or that nuclear weapons will be seen as a burden on the budget. 

The outcome could depend on whether Trump attaches the same level of priority to nuclear weapons modernization. The Obama administration’s focus on the nuclear triad and consistent support for the modernization programs helped move the programs forward and preserved their funding during internal debates. The Bush administration, in contrast, did not share this enthusiasm for the nuclear enterprise or support requests for robust funding. It is unclear which approach will predominate in the Trump administration. 


1.   For a summary of some of Donald Trump’s campaign statements on foreign policy issues, see David A. Graham, “Donald Trump’s Radical Foreign Policy,” The Atlantic, July 29, 2016.

2.   “Defense & National Security,” Greatagain.gov, November 21, 2016, https://greatagain.gov/defense-national-security-eb023007a60e#.xizv4i91d

3.   Rebecca K.C. Hersman, Clark Murdock, and Shanelle Van, “The Evolving U.S. Nuclear Narrative: Communicating the Rationale for the Role and Value of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1989 to Today,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), October 2016, p. 7, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/161018_Hersman_EvolvingNuclearNarrative_Web.pdf.

4.   U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, p. 28, http://www.defense.gov/npr/docs/2010%20Nuclear%20Posture%20Review%20Report.pdf

5.   Ibid., p. 14.

6.   Aaron Blake, “The First Trump-Clinton Presidential Debate Transcript, Annotated,” The Washington Post, September 26, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/09/26/the-first-trump-clinton-presidential-debate-transcript-annotated/?utm_term=.fa852195da07.

7.   General James Mattis, Statement before the Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on the U.S. National Security Strategy, January 27, 2015 (hereinafter Mattis statement).

8.   Clark Murdock et al., “Project Atom: A Competitive Strategies Approach to Defining U.S. Nuclear Strategy and Posture for 2025-2050,” CSIS, May 2015, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/150716_Murdock_ProjectAtom_Web_Rev2.pdf.

9.   Max Fisher, “Trump, Promising Arms Race, Could Set World on Uncertain Path.” New York Times, December 23, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/world/trump-nuclear-arms-race-russia-china.html.

10.   “Warsaw Summit Communiqué,” NATO press release no. (2016) 100, July 9, 2016, para. 53, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133169.htm.

11.   Matthew Kroenig, “The Renewed Russian Nuclear Threat and NATO Nuclear Deterrence Posture,” Atlantic Council Issue Brief, February 2016, p. 7, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/images/publications/Russian_Nuclear_Threat_0203_web.pdf. See Anthony Juarez, “Remixing the ‘Appropriate Mix’: Reassessing NATO’s Deterrence and Defense Posture in the Face of New Threats,” The Center for Global Security Research, no. LLNL-TR-699505 (July 2016), https://cgsr.llnl.gov/content/assets/docs/Reassessing_the_mix_Juarez.pdf.

12.   Steven Pifer, “Russia’s Rising Military: Should the U.S. Send More Nuclear Weapons to Europe?” The National Interest, July 21, 2015.

13.   Ibid.

14.   U.S. Department of Defense Press Operations, “Remarks by Secretary Carter to Troops at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota,” September 26, 2016, http://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/956079/remarks-by-secretary-carter-to-troops-at-minot-air-force-base-north-dakota.

15.   Mackenzie Eaglen and Rick Berger, “How Much Will Donald Trump Really Spend on Defense?” War on the Rocks, November 10, 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/11/how-much-will-donald-trump-really-spend-on-defense/.

16.   U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “The 2016 Long-Term Budget Outlook,” July 2016, https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/114th-congress-2015-2016/reports/51580-ltbo-one-col-2.pdf.

17.   Mattis statement.

18.   William J. Perry, “Why It’s Safe to Scrap America’s ICBMs,” The New York Times, September 30, 2016.

Amy F. Woolf is a specialist in nuclear policy at the Congressional Research Service in Washington. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the Congressional Research Service or the Library of Congress.

Analysts seeking to divine the Trump administration’s approach to U.S. nuclear weapons policies have few clues to go on.

North Korea: One Impulse for Trump to Heed

January/February 2017

By Leon V. Sigal

Lost in the countryside, a city slicker stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer replies laconically, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.” Starting from here is the sort of advice President Donald Trump is likely to get when he asks about North Korea. 

He will be urged to pick up where his predecessor left off: refuse to enter into negotiations unless the North first commits to denuclearizing completely and takes steps to demonstrate it is serious about that commitment. He also will be told to continue ratcheting up sanctions in a vain effort to force Pyongyang to the negotiating table on U.S. terms.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a coastal defense unit on Mahap Islet in this undated photo released by the official Korean Central News Agency on November 11, 2016. (Photo credit: KNS/AFP/Getty Images)That advice is tantamount to wishing away Washington’s current predicament in hopes of somehow going back to the future. 

Looming Threat

President Barack Obama’s stance of “strategic patience”—pressure without negotiations—rested on the dubious premise that time was on Washington’s side. His successor does not have that luxury.

North Korea’s fifth nuclear test may have yielded a nuclear device that can be mounted on a missile, although a few more tests still may be needed to prove its reliability. The North’s reactor at Yongbyon is fitfully generating more spent fuel, a refurbished reprocessing facility has just turned that spent fuel into plutonium, a new reactor is nearing completion, and its uranium-enrichment program, an alternative route to produce the explosive material for a nuclear bomb, has expanded. At its current pace, Pyongyang could have enough fissile material for more than 40 nuclear weapons by 2021.

Pyongyang is also test-launching new missiles, its intermediate-range Musudan and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile that could circumvent the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that is soon to be deployed in South Korea. A KN-08 ballistic missile is assessed to be capable of reaching the United States. Without testing, neither Washington nor Pyongyang can be sure of its range or reliability, but leader Kim Jong Un now said in his New Year address January 1 that his country is in the “final state of preparation”1 for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). 

“Won’t happen,” Trump responded in a January 2 tweet.2 

So what will Trump do to head off that looming threat?

Trump’s Impulses

Trump’s campaign rhetoric was contradictory, yielding few cues about what his North Korea policy might be. He has disparaged Kim as a “total nut job” and a “madman playing around with the nukes.”3 Yet, he also expressed willingness to sit down and talk with him. “Who the hell cares? I’ll speak to anybody,” Trump said. “There’s a 10 percent or 20 percent chance I could talk him out of having his damn nukes, because who the hell wants him to have nukes?”4 

Trump’s rhetoric was often impulsive, but it may be worth looking at the impulses he repeatedly revealed. 

Tougher sanctions. The favorite prescription of the foreign policy establishment is to tighten sanctions. To appear to do something while failing to tackle a difficult political problem is the classic stance of Washington insiders. 

Yet, sanctions may have less appeal to an anti-establishment outsider such as Trump and for good reason. Sanctions have enjoyed far less success against North Korea than against Iran. As the experience of negotiating with Iran suggests, moreover, relaxing sanctions may help stanch nuclear arming better than tightening them.

Although UN sanctions have impeded weapons trade with North Korea, the evidence suggests that they have not done much to hamper North Korea’s economy, which has continued to grow at a modest pace over the past decade. Its foreign trade persists despite efforts of the U.S. Department of the Treasury to cut off its access to banks around the globe, suggesting that hawala, the informal networks of brokers and middlemen who move money for clients in countries with large Muslim populations in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and similar middlemen in China have picked up some of the slack. Unlike oil-rich Iran, North Korea does not have many big-ticket items to buy or sell, making letters of credit from international banks less of a necessity.

In a world where money flows more freely than water, trying to plug the many leaks seems doomed to fail. North Koreans may denounce financial sanctions as a sign of U.S. hostile intent, but they are crying all the way around the banks. 

Let China do it. Another favorite prescription in Washington is to outsource the North Korean problem to China. That misreads Pyongyang’s purpose: it has long sought to improve relations with the United States, South Korea, and Japan as a hedge against overdependence on China for its security and prosperity. Nothing threatens Pyongyang more than cooperation between Washington and Beijing. When Washington and Beijing applied concerted pressure on Pyongyang, the North responded with nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016 in an effort to drive them apart.

During his campaign, Trump repeatedly voiced support for letting China deal with Kim. “I would get China to make that guy disappear, in one form or another, very quickly,” Trump told CBS. “China has absolute control of North Korea. They won’t say it, but they do, and they should make that problem disappear.”5 As it has demonstrated over many years, China has no interest in making Kim or North Korea disappear, which limits how much pressure it is willing to apply on Pyongyang by imposing stringent sanctions.

At the same time as he wants China’s help with North Korea, Trump has shown an impulse to pick a fight with China over trade and Taiwan. How will that help persuade China to step up pressure on Pyongyang, let alone “make that guy disappear”? “They don’t live and they don’t breathe without China,” he said of Pyongyang. “They wouldn’t get anything without China. China has the power, and we have to tell China to straighten out the situation,” Trump told Fox News. “We have power over China because of trade. Frankly, if we ever stopped it, believe me you would see a depression in China like you have never seen a depression before.”6 Yet, such a depression might also reduce U.S. growth and imperil South Korea and Japan, whose economies depend heavily on trade with China. And threatening to break the commitment to a one-China policy is likely to encourage Beijing to prop up Pyongyang.

Regime change. South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s current passion for regime change has impeded U.S. efforts to open negotiations, but she is being forced out of office. Ironically, regime change seems to have come to Washington and Seoul sooner than to Pyongyang. 

Yet, if Trump follows Park’s lead and waits for North Korea’s collapse, he will likely face a North Korea with many more nuclear warheads able to be delivered by missiles, some possibly capable of reaching the U.S. heartland, before his first term ends.

By then, if not before, Trump will hear siren calls to launch a preventive war to keep North Korea from fielding ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads, as if U.S. intelligence could pinpoint the locations of all the warheads in that tunnel-riven land.

For a president who, as a candidate, repeatedly criticized U.S. military intervention abroad and was skeptical of alliances, that option might be particularly unpalatable.7

Negotiation. Trump’s strongest impulse is to approach international politics as transactional and to regard himself as a peerless deal-breaker and deal-maker. He first broached the idea of talking to Kim on January 6, the very day that North Korea conducted its fourth test of a nuclear device. 

“You have this madman over there who probably would use it, and nobody talks to him other than, of course, Dennis Rodman,” he told “Fox and Friends.” “But nobody is talking to him whatsoever, and nobody is discussing it with China.”8 In a May 17 interview with Reuters, he revealed a willingness to sit down personally with Kim, saying, “I would have no problem speaking to him.”9 In a campaign appearance in California on June 6, he was dismissive of experts’ “qualms about bargaining with North Korea.” To the practitioner of “The Art of the Deal,” that posed “no problems at all.” Not one to suffer critics gladly, Trump added, “They say ‘we would never, ever, talk.’ How foolish they are!”10 

Nine days later, at a rally in Atlanta, he doubled down on the need for talks, saying he was prepared to host Kim, although he would forgo the usual diplomatic niceties. “If he came here, I’d accept him, but I wouldn’t give him a state dinner like we do for China and all these other people that rip us off when we give ‘em these big state dinners. We give them state dinners like you’ve never seen. We shouldn’t have dinners at all. We should be eating a hamburger on a conference table, and we should make better deals with China and others.”11

If he follows that instinct, he has to act sooner rather than later. The longer he waits, the greater the North’s bargaining leverage will be. Deferring negotiations until the North commits to complete denuclearization and takes unilateral steps to that end would be a waste of time. The urgent task is to induce Pyongyang to suspend arming now.

Past Agreements

Suspending the North Korean nuclear program has been the thrust of all three agreements that the United States has made with North Korea: the 1994 Agreed Framework; the September 19, 2005, six-party joint statement; and the 2012 Leap Day deal. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the first two accords had some success.12 The 1994 accord halted all fissile material production in the North for more than nine years until the George W. Bush administration seized on U.S. intelligence reports that Pyongyang was secretly acquiring the means to enrich uranium and used those reports to scrap the accord without bothering to probe the North’s offer to negotiate the issue. 

The 2005 accord was nearly stillborn when two days before the accord was finalized, the U.S. Treasury Department threatened sanctions on all banks that did business with North Korea, prompting authorities in Macao to seize North Korean funds at Banco Delta Asia. Shortly after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, Washington agreed to arrange for the return of the funds; and Pyongyang ceased all fissile material production at Yongbyon and nuclear tests and missile test-launches, only to have the deal fall apart in 2009 after South Korea failed to deliver promised energy aid. 

The Leap Day deal collapsed almost immediately when North Korea proceeded with a satellite launch attempt in 2013 despite a U.S. warning that such a move would be a deal-breaker. 

Given that history, trying for a suspension yet one more time would face formidable political opposition in Washington and Seoul. Opponents would demand that no deal be made unless Pyongyang first commits to denuclearization, which it insists it will not do. Delaying a possible suspension of the North’s programs while seeking an unlikely commitment to give up its weapons is to sacrifice the practical on the altar of the theoretical, and trying for a permanent dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs would take much more substantial inducements and consume precious time.

In short, without giving up the U.S. goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, negotiations have to start somewhere. Insisting on a more comprehensive deal while the North’s programs proceed apace does not make much strategic sense.

Next Steps

Washington understandably cannot keep negotiating while North Korea continues arming. Recent unofficial contacts indicate that Pyongyang seems open to talks about talks so long as it does not have to satisfy U.S. preconditions unilaterally. The subject of such talks would be a suspension of Pyongyang’s programs and the reciprocal steps that Washington would take to address its security concerns, along the lines of “action for action” as set forth in the September 19, 2005, joint statement.

The North might be willing to suspend arming. That was also the implication of its January 9, 2015, offer of “temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned” if the United States “temporarily suspend[s] joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year.”13 

A one-year suspension would not work. What would happen when that year was up? Would exercises have to be suspended permanently to keep the North from testing? The North may be amenable to a reduction in the scale, scope, and operating tempo of the three largest U.S.-South Korean joint exercises instead. For instance, if it were forgoing nuclear tests, there would be less need to fly B-52s into South Korean airspace to reassure U.S. allies. Similarly, mock attacks on nuclear sites and leadership targets could be avoided as needlessly provocative.

Both sides would have to agree to do more. Pyongyang might be willing to suspend not only nuclear testing, but also missile tests and possibly satellite launches and verifiably stop fissile material production. In return, Washington could suspend the application of all sanctions that predate the North’s nuclear program, reaffirm its commitments in the October 2000 U.S.-North Korean joint communiqué renouncing “hostile intent” and pledging to build “a new relationship free from past enmity,” commit to respect the North’s sovereignty and not interfere in its internal affairs, and, after consulting with Seoul, agree to commence a peace process on the Korean peninsula. 

Yet, the chances of persuading North Korea to go beyond another temporary freeze and dismantle its nuclear and missile programs are slim without firm commitments from Washington and Seoul to move toward political and economic normalization, engage in a peace process to end the Korean War, and negotiate regional security arrangements, among them a nuclear-weapon-free zone that would provide a multilateral legal framework for denuclearization. Trump’s willingness to hold out the prospect of a summit with Kim would also be a significant inducement. Doubts about his enduring commitment to the alliance, however, could intensify Seoul’s resistance to engaging in a peace process.

Suspension would leave North Korea with a rudimentary deterrent, but it would forestall unbounded weapons programs with profoundly destabilizing effect on the balance of power in Northeast Asia.


If all else fails and North Korea continues to arm, the fallback position of many in Washington is to bolster deterrence and contain it. For others, that is not enough. Yet, Trump’s indisposition to military intervention and skepticism about alliances14 seem to rule out some of the more forceful options being bruited about in Washington. 

Impulses are not policies, but they may provide clues to Trump’s inclinations. If he follows his impulse to talk, he could succeed where Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have failed. North Korea’s arming is now unbounded. Temporary suspension of its nuclear and missile programs, if possible, would have huge benefits for U.S. and allied security and could open the way to a gradual improvement in relations with North Korea that would ease its insecurity and facilitate more permanent dismantlement of its weapons programs. 

Perhaps Trump could get there if he starts from here.


1.   Kim Jong Un, “New Year Address,” http://www.naenara.com.kp/en/news/?22+3039.

2.   Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger, “‘It Won’t Happen,’ Trump Says of North Korean Missile Test,” The New York Times, January 2, 2017.

3.   Donald Trump, On the Record, Fox News, January 7, 2016.

4.   Maxwell Tani, “Donald Trump on North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un: ‘If He Came Here, I’d Accept Him,” Business Insider, June 15, 2016; Steve Holland and Emily Flitter, “Trump Would Talk to North Korea’s Kim, Renegotiate Climate Treaty,” Reuters, May 17, 2016.

5.   Donald Trump, This Morning, CBS, February 10, 2016.

6.   Donald Trump, “On the Record,” Fox News, January 7, 2016.

7.   Trump has said, 

We’re basically protecting Japan, and we are, every time North Korea raises its head, you know, we get calls from Japan and we get calls from everybody else, and “Do something.” And there’ll be a point at which we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore. Now, does that mean nuclear? It could mean nuclear.… [A]t some point, we cannot be the policeman of the world. And unfortunately, we have a nuclear world now. And you have, Pakistan has them. You have, probably, North Korea has them. I mean, they don’t have delivery yet, but you know, probably, I mean to me, that’s a big problem. And, would I rather have North Korea have them with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case.

Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger, “Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views,” The New York Times, March 26, 2016. See “Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World,” The New York Times, July 21, 2016.

8.   David Sherfinski, “Donald Trump: About Time That China Gets Involved With the North Korea Problem,” Washington Times, January 6, 2016.

9.   Holland and Flitter, “Trump Would Talk to North Korea’s Kim, Renegotiate Climate Treaty.”

10.   Choi Sung-jin, “Trump Reaffirms Intention to Talk With Kim Jong Un,” Korea Times, June 6, 2016.

11.   Eric DuVall, “Trump Would Host Kim Jong Un to Discuss Nuclear Program,” UPI, June 15, 2016.

12.   For a history of the negotiations, see Leon V. Sigal, “What Have Twenty-Five Years of Nuclear Diplomacy Achieved?” in Pathways to a Peaceful Korean Peninsula: Denuclearization, Reconciliation and Cooperation, ed. Jeong-ho Roh (Seoul: Korean Institute of National Unification) (forthcoming).

13.   Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), “KCNA Report,” January 10, 2015.

14.   For instance, Haberman and Sanger, “Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views.”

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York and author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea (1997).

Trump’s rhetoric was often impulsive, but it may be worth looking at the impulses he repeatedly revealed. 

Russia: U.S.-Russian Relations and the Future Security of Europe

January/February 2017

By Ulrich Kühn

The incoming Trump administration inherits a U.S.-Russian relationship marked by disagreement and confrontation in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the wars in Syria and Ukraine, the West’s use of economic sanctions, and reciprocal complaints about interferences in domestic affairs. 

The arms control dialogue is stagnating, and the risk of conflict, whether by intent or miscalculation, is growing.

U.S. soldiers participate in a parade on November 23, 2016, in Vilnius, Lithuania, during Iron Sword military exercises. Approximately 4,000 soldiers from NATO countries engaged in the two-week exercises intended to show support for the the three small Baltic states considered at risk from Russia. (Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)From a European perspective, the current confrontation between NATO and Russia and the question of how to preserve the post-Cold War peace in Europe should be a prime concern for the new administration. For President-elect Donald Trump, U.S. commitments to allies might hinge more on transactional considerations than on shared values. That might open up requirements for deeper integration of defense planning and spending among European allies. It also offers the chance for a fresh start on Russia, not in the sense of a bilateral “reset” but in terms of formulating a more focused U.S. strategy toward Russia that recognizes the unpleasant political realities, reminds Moscow of U.S. NATO security guarantees, and avoids possible escalation with Russia.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, have each displayed proclivities that could worsen relations between the two nuclear powers. To avert the more dire outcomes, the new administration should start by reassessing the fundamental Russian and U.S. interests in Europe.

Russia Today

Throughout the last 20 years, Russian leaders have made it abundantly clear that they object to NATO enlargement. As far back as 1997, Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet president, warned that “the eastward expansion of NATO is a mistake and a serious one at that.”1 Since 2008, Moscow in addition has made public its claim to “regions in which Russia has privileged interests.”2 Even though the Kremlin has never clearly specified what that means and to which countries it pertains, it would seem to include all non-NATO post-Soviet states.

Combining these two principles, it becomes clear that any enlargement of Western institutions, be it NATO or the European Union, runs counter to Russian interests.

In order to assert its interests, Russia relies on a strategy of creating a “belt of insecurity and instability” along its southwestern periphery.3 What first sounds illogical from a Western perspective, because stability and security are viewed as inherently worthwhile interests, can only be understood by considering the Kremlin’s perspective. The Russian leadership does not see its foreign policy as “revanchist” or seeking to reverse territorial losses, as it is often described in Western accounts. Instead, it sees Russia as a status quo power that always had special interests in the post-Soviet space and the West, above all the United States, as a status quo challenger.

From Moscow’s viewpoint, Russia is therefore in a defensive position, forced into a constant battle by the West, which relentlessly seeks to expand its influence through NATO and EU enlargement and the export of Western cultural, normative, and informational policies. This battle is all the more threatening because the Russian leadership is well aware that the West has the greater resources and because it is frantically trying to avoid complete international isolation.4

The Russian leadership fights this battle in two geographic theaters and with different means. The first is the post-Soviet space. Here, the Kremlin is only in a stronger position versus the West if it employs force as it did in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and in eastern Ukraine currently. All three cases are forms of direct coercion that are also aimed at deterring other post-Soviet states from drifting toward the West.

In the second theater, comprised of NATO member states, Russia is very much disadvantaged. Because of its comparative weakness, Moscow uses the tactics of cross-domain coercion5 and asymmetric responses below the level of open kinetic hostilities. Cross-domain coercion means that the Kremlin extends its struggle to all possible domains with the aim of dragging the West into a constant low-level conflict in the hope of manipulating its calculus toward accepting Russia’s claims, a tactic also known as “coercive gradualism.”6 This includes frequent NATO airspace violations, close military encounters over the Baltic and Black seas, cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, and support and financing of populist movements in NATO states.

It is here that the nuclear dimension—basically the only dimension where Russia matches the United States—comes into play. Regular instances of Russian nuclear signaling toward Washington and individual NATO member states have accompanied and aggravated the ongoing conflict. Reminders that Russia could turn the United States “into radioactive ash,”7 Putin allegedly pondering putting nuclear weapons on alert during the Crimea takeover,8 the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, large-scale conventional maneuvers that end with a simulated nuclear strike,9 and the alleged testing and production of a ground-launched cruise missile within ranges forbidden by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty are all aimed at unsettling NATO member states and creating the image of a reckless and unpredictable Russia that one should “best not mess with.”10

Military Balance

NATO member states and the U.S. strategic community are not unified in their assessment of the nature and purview of Russian interests. Is the Kremlin trying to militarily roll back U.S. influence, even in NATO member states? Much depends on what answer is formulated to this question, particularly regarding NATO’s most vulnerable members, the Baltic states.

The Obama administration answered that question by inference and opted to reassure the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—and Poland by low-key military commitments. As part of the European Reassurance Initiative, Washington is in the process of sending one armored brigade combat team of 4,000-5,000 personnel to rotate continuously through eastern Europe, prepositioning additional war-fighting equipment in western Europe, and improving air fields and bases. In addition, U.S. forces will lead a multinational battalion of approximately 1,000 personnel in northeast Poland.

Those measures can hardly be viewed as threatening Russia’s conventional regional superiority in its vast Western Military District, where some 300,000 military personnel are deployed, or as a serious attempt at deterrence by denial. Yet, if the Trump administration comes to a different assessment or if Russia were to increase its conventional forces along the Baltic borders, Washington would basically have to multiply its current military commitment or push allies to step in on behalf of the United States. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech on July 26, 2015, during celebrations for Navy Day in Baltiysk in the Kaliningrad region, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between NATO members Poland and Lithuania. (Photo credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)Russia has largely remained silent about its intentions. The Kremlin reaps benefits from confronting NATO with uncertainty. Even so, some of the facts on the ground are quite revealing. The provocative announcement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that three new divisions would be formed “to counter the growing capacity of NATO forces”11 was actually a reorganization, which represented a certain reversal of Russian military reforms. Those three new divisions will merge already existing and deployed brigades and will be stationed around Ukraine.12 The reshufflings mean that the Russian General Staff deems the scenario of a midsized conventional war possible and that its theater could be Ukraine. For the time being, it does not mean that Russia is preparing for a war against the Baltic states, as some U.S. experts suggest.13

One of NATO’s concerns is securing supply routes in times of an imminent threat. Even though the three Baltic states and Poland have just started the process of connecting their countries with a uniform railway system, NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, as well as additional military equipment, would have to be transported by air or shipped by sea during the coming years.

Complicating the situation, Russia has increasingly invested in a sophisticated network of “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) deployments, causing concern that Moscow could block sea and air routes.14 Because NATO officials are taking the Russian A2/AD capability seriously, Poland ordered 40 highly capable, stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) for its F-16 fighter-jet fleet and is reportedly in the process of purchasing 70 JASSM cruise missiles with extended ranges of more than 900 kilometers.15 Those missiles can be considered a significant improvement in NATO’s overall capabilities to hold Russian A2/AD assets at risk. 

The Russian A2/AD deployments notably are not aimed exclusively at suppressing NATO supply routes. They also serve the legitimate Russian interest of defending Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave on the Baltic Sea, in a scenario where NATO would be the attacker.

The United States faces the question of how to deal with Russia’s nuclear signaling. Some U.S. experts continue to urge NATO to answer the Russian actions.16 They refer to the alleged Russian doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate,” meaning that Russia could employ limited tactical nuclear weapons strikes in order to signal resolve in a conventional confrontation. Their concern is that Russia could present NATO with a fait accompli that the alliance, even if it desired, could not counter. 

In order to “close the credibility gap,”17 they call on NATO to increase the readiness levels of its forward-deployed nuclear assets in Europe, begin integrating conventional and nuclear forces in its exercises again, and further strengthen its declaratory nuclear policy. In fact, the United States is already spending large amounts to increase the perceived utility of its nonstrategic nuclear forces based in Europe through development of a modernized gravity bomb and modernized aircraft to deliver it. 

Calling on NATO to close the credibility gap appears to be an echo of the Cold War debate about Soviet attempts to decouple Western Europe from U.S. nuclear guarantees. For the time being, however, it seems that Moscow is much more convinced by U.S. guarantees than are some Western strategists. Further, there is not much in terms of official Russian documents, posture, or exercises that support the hypothesis of a Russian escalate to de-escalate doctrine confined to Europe.18 In fact, most of the more recent Russian maneuvers end with a simulated strategic nuclear strike.19 The Russian silence about the alleged doctrine appears to signal first and foremost unpredictability, which would fit into the general pattern of ambiguous behavior. 

The new U.S. administration must also consider how much control of the post-Soviet space matters to essential U.S. interests. The outgoing administration did not bow to calls20 for arming Ukraine. Instead, it ceded the diplomatic initiative to Germany and France and pushed the EU to join sanctions on Russia. This policy has harmed the Russian economy and resulted in a protracted, low-level conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Washington is basically confronted with a formidable dilemma. The United States has to try to dissuade Russia from further violating the post-Cold War European security order and to ensure that every country has the sovereign right to choose its economic, political, and military arrangements. Yet, U.S. leverage is limited, and the Kremlin has already de facto achieved its main goal, that is, a halt to further NATO/EU enlargement into the post-Soviet space.

Revisiting the issue of arming Ukraine might make matters worse. Moscow has proven its determination to go to great lengths to prevent Ukraine from regaining control over the Donbas region. Although it could provide more lethal weapons to Kiev, the United States would be likely to end up in a proxy war with Russia, a scenario where Moscow’s incentive to prevail would exceed Washington’s. Moreover, the people of Ukraine would pay most of the humanitarian costs of a full-fledged war with Russia, and the already struggling EU could be confronted with yet another wave of refugees.

Trump’s Conundrum

Trump’s remarks during the U.S. political campaign provide some clues about the new president’s thinking. For instance, he has conditioned U.S. defense of its major allies,21 saying other NATO members must pay more toward their own defense. More unnerving for most European leaders and U.S. foreign policy experts, he has praised Putin’s leadership qualities and even implied recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.22

A Polish Army soldier sits in a tank as a NATO flag flies behind during exercises of the alliance’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force on June 18, 2015 in Zagan, Poland. The task force is NATO’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Troops from Germany, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Belgium took part. (Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)Although it is too soon to know how the Trump administration will approach Russia and Europe, it is possible to identify challenges he will encounter and offer recommendations on how to meet them.

As some of his remarks suggest, Trump could end up giving the Kremlin what it wants, that is a bilateral modus vivendi of noninterference in the mutual spheres of privileged interest, meaning NATO territory here and the post-Soviet space there, while pressuring NATO allies to pay more of the defense burden. This is highly problematic for NATO member states and for some members of the U.S. Republican establishment for a number of reasons.

•   Further accommodating Russia might be perceived in Russia and other states as rewarding international aggression. The Kremlin could misread any such decision as a sign of U.S. weakness and an opportunity to exert more military pressure.

•   The consensus among U.S. policy-makers and particularly Republican-leaning experts is that the United States is militarily superior to Russia, although some argue that gap is closing, and that concessions should not be granted to a weaker opponent, in particular when that opponent is actively challenging U.S. interests.

•   The U.S. conservative political establishment still has a strong, albeit inconsistent, sense of mission when it comes to the promotion of democracy and the rule of law, and Russia has emerged as one of the most vocal challengers of such “Western values.” 

•   Any such understanding would risk alienating European NATO members that feel most threatened by Moscow, potentially splitting the alliance. 

•   Further, a European settlement on Russian terms, in combination with conditioning U.S. defense commitments, may create negative ripple effects in other parts of the world, most obviously in Northeast Asia, where U.S. allies could start fundamentally questioning U.S. extended deterrence guarantees.

Alternatively, Trump, heeding advice from Republican foreign policy hawks, could decide to show he can drive a harder bargain than his predecessor, President Barack Obama.Trump’s latest remarks about his readiness to engage in nuclear arms races could point in that direction.23 In that case, U.S. pushback against Russia could entail regular U.S. exercises close to Russian airspace, more explicit threats of U.S. nuclear weapons use, cyberattacks against Russian infrastructure, and the unilateral abrogation of arms control agreements such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the INF Treaty, or the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the 1997 political accord that conditionally bars the permanent deployment of substantial NATO combat forces to central and eastern Europe.

Such actions would present problems not only to Russia but also to Washington and its NATO allies.

•   Given Trump’s past erratic comments and the fact that the United States already has the most powerful military in the world, Moscow might feel very much threatened. It could prompt Russia to backpedal in order to de-escalate. Alternatively, the Kremlin may misperceive those signals as signs of U.S. offensive intentions and take countermeasures. Russia could even double down, resulting in a risky security dilemma that would be almost impossible to manage.

•   NATO member states might disagree on the logic and expected payoff of such a strategy, creating a schism that threatens alliance coherence.

•   Loose nuclear talk would undermine long-standing principles and norms of international conduct and thus create negative ripple effects beyond the immediate U.S.-Russian relationship, damaging the international reputation of the United States.

There is the possibility that not much changes in U.S.-Russian relations, particularly given Trump’s predisposition to “make America great again” by focusing attention and resources on domestic problems. In that case, the administration would be well advised to prioritize its responses in Europe. Paramount priority must be given to the safety and security of NATO member states and making sure that NATO maintains a unified position. Protecting Ukraine is a related but subordinate interest and should be handled in close coordination with European allies.


The best way to deal with Russia is to remain calm and patient. In this regard, a good personal relationship between Trump and Putin might be helpful. Washington has already underscored its commitment to NATO’s easternmost members. It should continue to do so through regular and visible high-level visits, consultations, and affirmations of U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision. 

If the Trump administration feels that some allies are not meeting their defense spending obligations, it should seek ways to encourage deeper military integration, cooperation, and defense planning among European NATO members. In addition, Washington could consider prepositioning additional military equipment in western Europe.

The Trump administration should be ready to publicly denounce Russian nuclear signaling and intimidation attempts whenever they occur. Washington should seek the broadest international support possible for doing so.

As a matter of high priority, Washington should focus on conflict management with the aim of preventing inadvertent or accidental escalation, in particular because Russia is employing high-risk tactics. If the ongoing NATO-Russian talks on military incidents are not yielding tangible results, Washington should seek direct talks with the aim of reinvigorating, modernizing, and perhaps multilateralizing earlier Cold War bilateral agreements.24

Given the high probability of misperceptions and misunderstandings and the Russian strategy of drawing NATO ever deeper into a nonkinetic conflict, Washington should exercise restraint. If Russia is not significantly increasing its military presence along the Baltic borders or the Black Sea periphery of NATO, Washington should not give it an excuse to do so. Instead, it should invest more time in diplomatic efforts to assure allies and lower tensions with Russia.

The United States should leave NATO’s nuclear component untouched, avoid too much declaratory drivel, and leave the Russians in the dark instead.

The United States should not arm Ukraine. Russia will be able to counter militarily almost every step taken. Instead, Washington and its allies should provide Kiev with much more economic support. The gravest political threat to the current leadership in the Kremlin is a prosperous and economically thriving Ukraine.

A cost-saving approach to defense lies in the realm of resilience. Washington should do everything possible to strengthen the resilience of the Baltic states. An eastern Ukraine-like scenario is only likely if their Russian minorities feel deeply disenfranchised or alienated. The United States therefore should keep a close watch on the state of educational, language, cultural, informational, anti-corruption, policing, and rule of law policies and should offer its help in a proactive manner.

On the sanctions policy, Washington should ensure the EU keeps firm because this is one of the only real forms of leverage the West possesses. 

Bilateral Arms Control

All this does not bode well for the bilateral arms control agenda. Arms control policies are built on certain recognition that preserving the status quo is beneficial. The United States and Russia, however, view each other at present as challenging the status quo.

The fact that Russia reaps benefits from its unpredictable behavior makes it necessary to change the Russian calculus so that Moscow views the gains from cooperation as outweighing those from confrontation. Yet, that would mean that Washington would have to be willing to offer something significant that goes beyond the immediate arms control goals of predictability, stability, and transparency.

U.S. sailors salute during the inauguration ceremony for the U.S. anti-missile station Aegis Ashore Romania (in the background) at the military base in Deveselu, Romania on May 12, 2016. Aegis Ashore, staffed by U.S. naval personnel, is the land-based version of the ship-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system. (Photo credit: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)An unofficial recognition of spheres of privileged interest, together with a more respectful relationship under Trump, could be something that interests Putin. Nevertheless, the widely shared disdain for arms control among many Republican policymakers would certainly work against a serious U.S. arms control push.

One of the true concerns of the Russian military is the conventional superiority of the combined forces of NATO. In turn, the regional Russian superiority in eastern Europe, particularly vis-à-vis the Baltic states, is a concern in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels. At the sub-regional level, Russia is concerned about the security of Kaliningrad. This Matryoshka doll-like situation offers at least the theoretical possibility of a quid pro quo arrangement for the wider Baltic region with mutual geographical limitations on manpower, equipment, and reinforcement capabilities, coupled with intrusive and verifiable transparency measures.25 

Another issue Washington should explore is Russia’s alleged breach of the INF Treaty. Since 2014, the U.S. government has accused Russia of violating the treaty by flight-testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.26 Meanwhile, a U.S. report claimed that “Russia is producing more missiles than are needed to sustain a flight-test program,”suggesting that deployment may be imminent.27

Russia tabled a number of countercharges, among which was the claim that the U.S.-led Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense launchers being deployed in eastern Europe had been tested with systems banned under the INF Treaty, suggesting that Aegis Ashore could be used for offensive purposes. The scenario of a decapitating strike seems to rank quite prominently among Russian concerns.28

Much depends on Russian intentions. The agreement to address compliance issues by convening the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Commission in November for the first time in 13 years was a positive development. Yet if Moscow continues down the current path of producing and perhaps deploying new INF Treaty-range weapons, Europe risks entering a new Cold War “Euromissiles” crisis, awakening some of the turmoil encountered during the 1970s and 1980s.

If the Russian rationale is really based on fear of a decapitating strike, U.S. officials could consider options to reassure Moscow about the Aegis Ashore launchers deployed in Romania, such as technical consultations and site visits, demonstrating to Russian experts that the United States is ready to undergo hardware changes that make it technically impossible for these launchers to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles.

If much of Russia’s concern stems from third-country nuclear and conventional missiles within the INF Treaty range (e.g., China’s capabilities), Washington and Moscow can consider reviving a 2007 UN General Assembly initiative put forward by Russia and supported by the United States that called for a multilateralization of the INF Treaty. Putin’s latest remarks seem to point in that direction.29 In this way, both sides could take account of emerging technologies and the changing geopolitical landscape, which no longer may be resolved in the traditional bilateral manner.

Either approach would require both sides to pursue a face-saving solution. A grimmer scenario has both sides finding powerful incentives to walk away from the INF Treaty. Trump adviser and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who was among the candidates for secretary of state, has advocated withdrawal from the INF Treaty, referring to states such as China, Iran, and North Korea, which “face no limits on developing intermediate-range weapons.”30

Even though both sides can extend New START for another five years, the U.S. Senate will most likely not give its advice and consent to any follow-on agreement absent a resolution of the INF Treaty issue. The Trump administration might even use Russian noncompliance and nuclear modernizations as reasons to opt out of New START implementation. Moscow might be ready to go down that road as well.

A follow-on agreement to New START is important, particularly in order to understand both sides’ nuclear modernization activities, to preserve transparency, to prevent backsliding into arms race instability, and to convince non-nuclear powers that Russia and the United States take seriously their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament.

Washington and its European allies will need to remind Moscow that, without INF Treaty compliance, further strategic nuclear dialogue and a New START follow-on may be impossible, closing off Russia’s most productive path toward preserving its influence and enhancing its security.

Therefore, the new U.S. administration should engage with Moscow as early as possible on arms control issues. It needs to remind the Kremlin that respect for Russia will be influenced by Russia’s respect for mutual security. It also needs to remember that existing problems will not go away by acting as if arms control talks are a reward for Russia. The reality is just the opposite: arms control talks are in the genuine national interest of all parties—the United States, Russia, and the international community.


1.   Thomas W. Lippman, “Clinton, Yeltsin Agree on Arms Cuts and NATO,” The Washington Post, March 22, 1997.

2.   Charles Clover, “Russia Announces ‘Spheres of Interest,’” Financial Times, August 31, 2008.

3.   This belt stretches from the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which Russia fuels and manages at the same time through arms sales and political pressure; along the protracted, open conflicts in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova; over the pro-Russian, authoritarian-ruled Belarus; and up to the Baltic states, Poland, and the Scandinavian countries, the latter of which Russia has also repeatedly intimidated throughout the last two years.

4.    President of Russia, “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club,” October 27, 2016, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/53151.

5.   Dmitry (Dima) Adamsky, “Cross-Domain Coercion: The Current Russian Art of Strategy,” Proliferation Papers, No. 54 (November 2015), https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/pp54adamsky.pdf.

6.   William G. Pierce, Douglas G. Douds, and Michael A. Marra, “Understanding Coercive Gradualism,” Parameters, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Autumn 2015): 51-61.

7.   Lidia Kelly, “Russia Can Turn U.S. to Radioactive Ash - Kremlin-Backed Journalist,” Reuters, March 16, 2014.

8.   Adam Withnall, “Vladimir Putin Says Russia Was Preparing to Use Nuclear Weapons ‘If Necessary’ and Blames U.S. for Ukraine Crisis,” The Independent, March 15, 2015.

9.   The end of the most recent Kavkaz (South) 2016 exercise coincided with the Russian military test-firing a modernized Topol intercontinental ballistic missile. Pavel Felgenhauer, “Russian Military Resists Proposed Budget Cuts, Prepares for Major Ground War,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 15, 2016, https://jamestown.org/program/russian-military-resists-proposed-budget-cuts-prepares-for-major-ground-war/#sthash.Jmzv79tt.dpuf.

10.   Alexei Anishchuk, “Don’t Mess With Nuclear Russia, Putin Says,” Reuters, August 29, 2014.

11.   Dmitry Solovyov and Lidia Kelly, “Russia Warns of Retaliation as NATO Plans More Deployments in Eastern Europe,” Reuters, May 4, 2016.

12.   Anna Maria Dyner, “Russia Beefs Up Military Potential in the Country’s Western Areas,” PISM Bulletin, No. 35 (885) (June 13, 2016), http://www.pism.pl/publications/bulletin/no-35-885.

13.   Elbridge Colby and Jonathan Solomon, “For Peace With Russia, Prepare for War in Europe: NATO and Conventional Deterrence,” War on the Rocks, April 20, 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/04/for-peace-with-russia-prepare-for-war-in-europe-nato-and-conventional-deterrence/.

14.   Giulia Paravicini, “New Chess Game Between West and Russia,” Politico, July 1, 2016, http://www.politico.eu/article/natos-struggle-to-close-defence-gaps-against-russia-a2ad/.

15.   Ben Judson, “Poland Wants Extended-Range JASSM Missiles,” Defense News, November 29, 2016. http://www.defensenews.com/articles/poland-wants-extended-range-jassm-missiles.

16.   Matthew Kroenig, “Facing Reality: Getting NATO Ready for a New Cold War,” Survival, Vol. 57, No. 1 (2015): 49-70.

17.    Jacek Durkalec and Matthew Kroenig, “NATO’s Nuclear Deterrence: Closing Credibility Gaps,” The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2016): 37-50.

18.   Olga Oliker has illustrated that in a very detailed and convincing study. Olga Oliker, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine: What We Know, What We Don’t, and What That Means,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2016, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160504_Oliker_RussiasNuclearDoctrine_Web.pdf.

19.   Felgenhauer, “Russian Military Resists Proposed Budget Cuts, Prepares for Major Ground War.”

20.   Ivo Daalder et al., “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” Atlantic Council of the United States, February 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/UkraineReport_February2015_FINAL.pdf.

21.   Maggie Haberman and David E. Sanger, “Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views,” The New York Times, March 26, 2016.

22.   Nick Gass, “Trump Tries to Clean Up on Crimea,” Politico, August 1, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/trump-clarifies-crimea-ukraine-226497.

23.   Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger, “Trump Says U.S. Would ‘Outmatch’ Rivals in a New Nuclear Arms Race,” The New York Times, December 23, 2016.

24.   Among those could be the 1972 agreement on the prevention of incidents on and over the high seas and the 1989 agreement on the prevention of dangerous military activities. For the recommendations of the Deep Cuts Commission on the creation of a Joint Military Incident Prevention and Communications Cell with a direct telephone link to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Russian General Staff, and SHAPE, see Deep Cuts Commission, “Back From the Brink: Toward Restraint and Dialogue Between Russia and the West,” Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, June 2016, p. 17, http://deepcuts.org/images/PDF/Third_Report_of_the_Deep_Cuts_Commission_English.pdf.

25.   I am grateful to Josh Pollack for the Matryoshka doll metaphor.

26.   Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, “2016 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 11, 2016, http://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2016/255651.htm.

27.   Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Is Moving Ahead With Missile Program That Violates Treaty, U.S. Officials Say,” The New York Times, October 19, 2016.

28.   Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Comment by the Information and Press Department on the U.S. Department of State’s Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” April 15, 2016, http://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2237950

29.   President of Russia, “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club.”

30.   John R. Bolton and John Yoo, “An Obsolete Nuclear Treaty Even Before Russia Cheated,” The Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2014.

Ulrich Kühn is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, a fellow with the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, and founder and a permanent member of the Deep Cuts Commission.

The arms control dialogue between Russia and the United States is stagnating, and the risk of conflict, whether by intent or miscalculation, is growing.

The Nuclear Test Ban: Technical Opportunities for the New Administration

January/February 2017

By Stephen Herzog

It has been two decades since the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was opened for signature at the United Nations. So far, 183 states have signed and 166 have ratified the treaty, which U.S. President Bill Clinton called “the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in the history of arms control.”1 

Despite what since has become a global norm against explosive nuclear testing, the CTBT itself does not enter into force until it is ratified by eight holdout states listed in Annex 2 of the treaty, including the United States.2 Even so, the accord is a well-established pillar of the international security system. The UN Security Council in September marked the treaty’s 20th anniversary by adopting Resolution 2310, which recognizes international support for the accord, reinforces the global norm against nuclear test explosions created by the treaty, underscores the value of the global monitoring system to verify treaty compliance, and calls on all remaining states to sign and ratify to facilitate its “early entry” into force.

The infrasound array on the remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha, shown in a 2004 photo, is among the 285 certified sites that are part of the International Monitoring System established to verify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Photo credit: CTBTO)As the Trump administration sets out policies on the CTBT regime and other nuclear arms control and nonproliferation issues, it should not overlook the opportunity to advance related scientific and technical measures to strengthen nuclear explosion monitoring worldwide.

The capability to detect nuclear tests has changed dramatically since 1999, when the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate voted against CTBT ratification, with opponents citing issues such as verification and a potential need for testing to maintain the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. At that time, there were no certified International Monitoring System (IMS) stations. At present, 285 of the planned 337 IMS stations are certified and monitoring the globe to detect and confirm any violations of the treaty.3 A 2012 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study concluded that sensitive monitoring thresholds of IMS stations and national technical means would make it extremely difficult for even the most sophisticated states to evasively test nuclear weapons.4 The study also found that the U.S. nuclear stockpile stewardship program is maintaining a reliable arsenal under the 1992 U.S. moratorium on nuclear tests. These conditions have led numerous analysts to conclude that the treaty serves U.S. national security interests.5 

Even with persuasive technical capabilities in place and President Barack Obama’s April 2009 commitment to aggressively pursue U.S. ratification, his administration’s efforts were modest. They included outreach to senators, publication of Department of State factsheets, and participation of administration officials in nongovernmental events. Perhaps the lack of stronger action for ratification stemmed from political battles on Capitol Hill, including over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and the nuclear agreement with Iran. 

Regardless, the case is clear for the Trump administration to redouble these efforts and pursue CTBT ratification. Yet, the incoming administration should not limit itself to seeking ratification. This article discusses a series of technical initiatives that would improve the already excellent global monitoring capabilities and further align the international community behind ending nuclear tests. Vote counting in the Senate should not cause stagnation or reduced U.S. support for these objectives. In fact, enhanced treaty-monitoring efforts would help further disprove CTBT critics and might stimulate global, bottom-up scientific pressures for ratification and entry into force.

Improving Data Collection

Worldwide detection of nuclear explosions requires expansive real-time monitoring and data processing that are unprecedented in the history of arms control. The NAS study expressed confidence in the capabilities of the IMS and other monitoring networks. The North Korean underground nuclear tests and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactor crisis demonstrated the global effectiveness of the monitoring systems. Still, more work could be done to increase waveform and radionuclide data collection. Seismic, hydroacoustic, and infrasound waveform data are used to help identify the location of an event and to determine if it is natural or man-made. Radionuclide particulate and noble gas data can provide the “smoking gun” evidence confirming the occurrence of a nuclear explosion.

Steps to complete and expand the IMS will help to build greater international support for the treaty and conclusively confirm that states cannot carry out illicit nuclear tests without being caught. 

Completing the IMS. The IMS is the backbone of the CTBT due to its critical role in collecting information about geophysical events. When complete, the IMS will consist of 50 primary and 120 auxiliary seismic, 11 hydroacoustic, 60 infrasound, and 80 radionuclide monitoring stations, as well as 16 radionuclide laboratories. Of these facilities, 285 are now certified, 17 are installed, 17 are under construction, and 18 are still in the planning process.6 Around the clock, they provide waveform, radionuclide particulate, and noble gas data, ensuring that states are not testing nuclear devices in the earth’s atmosphere, underwater, or underground. 

The stations transmit real-time event data via satellite link to the International Data Centre (IDC) in Vienna, operated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). Data center analysts make raw data and compiled event bulletins available to authorized users from CTBT states-parties.7

A group of specialists from national data centers in African and Middle Eastern countries takes part in a May 2012 training course in Vienna. The data centers are part of the global monitoring and verification system for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Photo credit: CTBTO)Beyond the NAS study and a large body of scientific literature validating monitoring capabilities, the system has been successfully field-tested many times. Numerous IMS stations detected each of North Korea’s five underground nuclear tests. Within hours of North Korea’s most recent test on September 9, 2016, CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo announced, “So far 25 of our stations are contributing to the analysis.”8 

The utility of the IMS is not limited to nuclear explosion monitoring. For example, the gathered radionuclide data were essential for analysis of the radiation effects of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Furthermore, IMS data were instrumental in defining the mock area to be examined by on-site inspectors during the CTBTO’s successful field exercises in Kazakhstan in 2008 and Jordan in 2014.

The text of the accord has produced some unfortunate political difficulties alongside the many achievements of the monitoring network. Annex 1 to the treaty’s protocol specifies the national locations and coordinates for monitoring stations pursuant to the CTBT negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament. Like entry into force, amending the CTBT is a daunting task. At times, logistical and funding hurdles have delayed certification of IMS stations on small islands and in Antarctica. More troubling, however, is the presence of noncertified stations in states that have not yet ratified the treaty, such as China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Although the Chinese stations are moving toward certification and transmitting data to the data center, other stations remain in political limbo.9 

As host to 38 certified IMS facilities on its various territories, the United States can credibly push for completion of the monitoring system. The United States could apply pressure or lend its technical capabilities to its Egyptian, Pakistani, and Saudi allies for installation and certification of these remaining stations. Additionally, Washington has diplomatic leverage when dealing bilaterally and multilaterally with other states slated to host IMS stations, including China, Ethiopia, Iran, and Thailand. If these stations came online, they would provide valuable monitoring data to the international community and trigger deepened engagement between the CTBTO and holdout states in their surrounding regions.

Concluding a Facility Agreement. The United States could also take a leading role in strengthening the IMS by concluding a facility agreement with the CTBTO. These agreements are intended to be signed between the organization and all 89 states that host IMS stations on their territory.10 Facility agreements cover matters such as IMS technical upgrades, station operator training, and the legal aspects of CTBTO access to monitoring sites. 

Only 45 of these 89 states have signed facility agreements, of which 38 such accords have entered into force.11 Active facility agreements account for approximately half of the IMS stations. As the state hosting the greatest number of IMS stations, participation by the United States in the facility agreements regime is integral to the long-term success of the monitoring system. Leadership by the Trump administration would send a strong signal of the vital importance of unhindered and uninterrupted IMS data flow.

Breaking Ground on Cooperating National Facilities. Although adding new stations to the IMS is politically and legally difficult, the United States should promote the treaty’s often-overlooked Cooperating National Facility (CNF) provision. Under the CTBT, states are permitted to build facilities that make available supplementary data from national monitoring stations that are not formally part of the IMS. These facilities would be constructed at the expense of the hosting states-parties and require certification by the CTBTO just like treaty-designated stations.12

Initial discussions on CNF data contributions to the IDC were similar to the protocols regarding IMS auxiliary seismic stations. That is, the stations would be operated by the hosting state with a satellite link allowing data flow to the IDC at the request of the CTBTO. In recent years, however, there has been debate in the CTBTO’s Working Group B on verification over whether the data center would be permitted to incorporate CNF data into its analyses.

CNFs would augment the strong monitoring capabilities of the IMS by offering new waveform and radionuclide data to the international community. Also, there are no limitations on the number of CNFs that states may build. Certified CNFs could help to attenuate the fears of states that are concerned about the activities of their neighbors and would be particularly useful in confidence building on verification for a future Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone. In 2000 a group of Israeli scientists published a study showing that national seismic network stations in Israel and Jordan could be certified as CNFs to enhance the precision of IMS location capabilities in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region.13 Yet to date, no states have established such facilities, although several have expressed interest in developing “Prototype CNFs.” 

The incoming administration should bring U.S. technical assistance to bear in support of U.S. allies and other states that are willing to host CNFs. These de facto IMS stations would expand monitoring coverage, which would be particularly valuable in regions where political difficulties have stymied completion of the IMS. By showcasing the importance of the data for their region, CNFs might also encourage reluctant host states to pursue installation and certification of treaty-mandated IMS stations. A key part of U.S. leadership on the CNF issue will be sustained diplomatic efforts to ensure that data collected by these facilities are distributed to all interested states-parties in compiled IDC data products and bulletins.

Expanding Data Analysis

If improving data collection is one side of the coin for more effective monitoring, expanding data analysis is the other. It is in the interest of U.S. national security to ensure that states around the world are making use of data from the IMS and future CNFs for verifying the absence of nuclear explosive testing. The CTBTO has made great strides toward this end under the leadership of Zerbo, the former head of the IDC. Alongside efforts to pursue treaty ratification, the United States should work with the CTBTO toward attaining universal use of these data among states-parties. 

Increasing National Data Centers. Unlike the International Atomic Energy Agency’s high level of autonomy, the efficacy of the CTBTO, once the ban treaty enters into force, will be entirely dependent on its states-parties. Determining whether a treaty violation has occurred will not be left to international scientists and bureaucrats. Instead, ordering an on-site inspection will be a political decision requiring 30 affirmative votes from among the 51 state members of the CTBTO’s Executive Council. In principle, national votes will be made based on sound national scientific analyses.

For this reason, the establishment of national data centers is indispensable to the success of the CTBT monitoring and verification regime. Such centers are nationally designated institutes whose responsibilities include sending IMS data to the IDC and receiving data and compiled data bulletins from the IDC.14 These national centers employ analysts with expertise in waveform and radionuclide technologies who evaluate data from the IMS and other national networks. Their objective is to determine whether nuclear explosions are occurring in regions of interest. These analyses will inform national responses to geophysical events, as well as votes on on-site inspections and treaty violations in the Executive Council.

The number of these national centers around the globe continues to expand, but these technical centers of expertise are far from universal. Of the 183 state signatories and 166 states that have ratified the treaty, only 129 have established such centers.15 Given the significance of Executive Council votes, it is clearly in the U.S. interest to ensure that political decisions are informed by rigorous scientific and technical analysis. The Trump administration should continue and expand on existing U.S. capacity-building programs while engaging in political outreach aimed at encouraging the development of these national centers.

Broadening the Web Portal User Base. Simply ensuring that states have access to raw IMS data and IDC data bulletins is perhaps even more important than establishing these national centers. Currently, access is available to authorized users affiliated with governments of state signatories. After entry into force, states will need to have ratified the treaty to maintain access for their authorized users. Data access takes place through a platform called the IDC Secure Web Portal. At present, 137 states have users accessing this platform.16 Although this array of states is impressive, they only represent three-quarters of states-parties with eligibility to access the data. To avoid misperceptions about potential nuclear tests, particularly in areas with pronounced regional tensions, the United States should encourage the use of the IDC Secure Web Portal. Washington should also support the development of the relevant technical expertise needed to analyze event data on this platform.

Civil and Scientific Outreach

Societies and civilian economies have long benefited from the peaceful uses of technology associated with global security. The IMS data are no exception. Article IV of the CTBT even notes that states-parties may “benefit from the application of [monitoring] technologies for peaceful purposes.” 

Frank Rose, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, visits the radionuclide monitoring station on the roof of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization headquarters in Vienna on June 23, 2015. He was accompanied by Barbara Nadalut, a CTBTO radionuclide expert. (Photo credit: CTBTO)Indeed, the civil and scientific uses of associated seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound, and radionuclide data are vast. The treaty further states that satellite and electromagnetic pulse monitoring should be discussed as an expansion of the IMS. Accordingly, the United States should cooperate with the CTBTO to widen the promotion of civil and scientific uses of IMS data. This is particularly the case among countries that have not signed or ratified the treaty, pursued certification of their hosted IMS stations, or displayed notable interest in nuclear explosion monitoring.

Interest in Explosion Monitoring. The United States is but one of a few states in the world with CTBT monitoring and verification interests spanning the entire globe. Other states have more regionalized interests and will likely focus on “precision monitoring” directed at “one or a few countries of concern, or on limited areas of those countries.”17 Another group of states, however, are disinterested in nuclear explosion monitoring or believe that verification issues should be left to larger, more capable states. Involvement of these states in CTBT activities is important for dispelling the myth of the accord’s irrelevance and promoting Executive Council votes based on dispassionate scientific analyses.

The CTBTO recognizes that states have unequal levels of interest. Based on this understanding and the multifaceted utility of CTBT data, panels on civil and scientific uses of data have been a part of the organization’s biannual science and technology conferences since 2009. Some examples of alternative uses of data include hydroacoustic tracking of whale migration patterns and seismic hazard mapping of fault zones to protect populations from earthquakes.18 

IMS data have also been instrumental in mitigating the consequences of disasters. This was highlighted by the use of radionuclide data in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi reactor crisis in 2011 and infrasound monitoring of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland a year earlier. After the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the CTBTO began to cooperate on real-time tsunami warning with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Tsunami warning centers in 14 countries have signed agreements with the CTBTO to receive data from relevant IMS stations.19 In 2011, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognized such achievements, stating, “Even before entering into force, the CTBT is saving lives.”20

Specialists with the expertise to develop seismic hazard maps or radionuclide atmospheric transport models often have the ability to participate in CTBT monitoring and verification activities. Many national data center experts split their time between nuclear explosion monitoring and civil scientific pursuits. The United States should work alongside the CTBTO to continuously engage these experts. This should entail promoting the civil and scientific uses of IMS data, while encouraging technical experts to apply their skills to the domain of nuclear explosion monitoring. To be effective, such scientific partnerships require a broad understanding of the applications for CTBT-related data that states may find useful. Opening channels for cross-national data sharing and research may facilitate improved communication regarding potential nuclear tests.

U.S. promotion of the civil and scientific applications of IMS data may also increase global political ratification prospects for the CTBT. Such activities could emphasize the numerous benefits of treaty participation for those states that remain outside of the test ban regime. Another potential benefit might be a better understanding of the value of installing and certifying the remaining IMS stations. 

University and Industry Collaborators. National data centers’ analysts and national monitoring experts are not the only people who could make use of the large repository of data associated with the CTBT regime. Many technical experts in academia and private industry have a professional interest in disaster response, geophysical hazard mitigation, nuclear explosion monitoring, and other related scientific endeavors. The CTBTO has recognized the necessity of incorporating these communities into its activities, as indicated by their increasing participation at the science and technology conferences. Due to limited IMS data access, however, universities and the private sector can only play a small role in leveraging CTBT technologies for the benefit of their countries and the international community. With growing interest in IMS data from domestic sectors outside of the U.S. government, Washington is well positioned to advocate for an increasingly open and transparent scientific culture surrounding the CTBT.

The CTBTO has opened its doors outside of official governmental channels through the creation of its Virtual Data Exploitation Center. This platform enables researchers working on scientific projects to request access to IMS data. If the CTBTO approves, researchers are granted access to archival, event-specific data that is not useful for monitoring and may not be published in its raw form.

This platform and other initiatives are an encouraging start to furthering IMS data transparency. Still, the United States should consider supporting greater levels of openness. Perhaps the states-parties would allow the CTBTO to open its data repositories to universities and the private sector after a certain amount of time. With this lag, the data would be of no use in sensitive, real-time nuclear explosion monitoring activities. Yet, these archived waveform and radionuclide data would be useful for such undertakings as earthquake preparedness, meteorological tracer studies, and iceberg mapping. Further, accentuating the scientific benefits would increase pressure on CTBT holdout governments to reconsider the utility of the accord for their population.

Entry Into Force Prospects

This article has highlighted a number of technical initiatives the incoming Trump administration should pursue alongside CTBT ratification. Proponents of the treaty have a persuasive technical and national security case for ratification. Given this and the precedent that U.S. ratification would set for other Annex 2 states, the administration will surely face domestic and international ratification pressures.21 As the new administration considers a ratification debate, it should not forget about the complementarity of science, technology, and politics within the CTBT sphere.

Efforts to increase the flow of CTBT-related data and expand and train the community that analyzes these data would strengthen the administration’s hand against treaty critics. In the 1999 debate over the CTBT, prominent critics such as Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) argued that the treaty was unverifiable. Senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.), who will likely play an outsized role in a ratification debate, noted in 2008 that he was willing to revisit the issue of CTBT verifiability. Times and verification prospects have changed drastically since 1999. The near-completion of the IMS, success of the stockpile stewardship program, and publication of the decisive NAS study on CTBT verification should leave no lingering doubts among even the treaty’s past detractors. The scientific and technical initiatives described above will only further discredit skeptics of the CTBT at home and abroad.

Still, the Trump administration must not restrict its focus to attaining U.S. ratification of the test ban. Seven other Annex 2 states have yet to ratify the treaty: signatories China, Egypt, Iran, and Israel and nonsignatories India, North Korea, and Pakistan. Although those who have signed remain obligated to the accord under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, their ratification is required for entry into force and activation of the treaty’s mechanism for on-site inspections.22

Top-down U.S. political and diplomatic outreach efforts to encourage other states to ratify the CTBT and complete the IMS should continue. Because of the pivotal role of technology in monitoring and verification, the United States should undertake an expanded international program of complementary bottom-up scientific outreach. Increased access to data and analytical training are integral to familiarizing experts with the CTBT and nuclear explosion monitoring, the IMS and its data, the civil and scientific benefits of the treaty, the CTBTO as an institution, and the global norm against nuclear tests. 

When political decision-makers consult scientists about the utility and verifiability of the CTBT or about its Executive Council votes on on-site inspections or treaty violations, it is unmistakably in the U.S. national interest for these experts to be prepared to let the science speak for itself. Scientific outreach was one of the key components underlying effective U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian arms control during the Cold War and beyond. 

Now, the incoming administration has an opportunity to embrace scientific diplomacy, which may be the key to getting the dominoes to fall toward entry into force of the CTBT. This would truly be a remarkable foreign policy achievement by the Trump administration to strengthen global security.


1.   CTBTO, “Status of Signature and Ratification,” 2016, https://www.ctbto.org/the-treaty/status-of-signature-and-ratification/; James Bennett, “Clinton, at UN, Says He’ll Press Senate on Test Ban Pact,” The New York Times, September 23, 1997.

2.   States listed in Annex 2 to the CTBT are the 44 that participated in the negotiation of the treaty and had nuclear power or research reactors at the time. Their ratification is required before the treaty can enter into force. The eight remaining Annex 2 holdouts are China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States. See CTBTO, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty,” Annex 2.

3.   CTBTO, “International Monitoring System,” 2016, https://www.ctbto.org/map/

4.   Committee on Reviewing and Updating Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, National Research Council of the National Academies, The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States (Washington: National Academies Press, 2012). Prior to the publication of this decisive NAS study, the scientific community was largely united behind the verifiability of the CTBT. For a summary of these arguments, see David W. Hafemeister, “The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Effectively Verifiable,” Arms Control Today, October 2008, pp. 6-12.

5.   Charles D. Ferguson and Stephen Herzog, “Kyl Should Reconsider Opposition to Nuclear Test Ban,” The Hill, March 30, 2011; Kaegan McGrath, “Verifiability, Reliability, and National Security: The Case for U.S. Ratification of the CTBT,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 16, No. 3 (2009): 423-428; Deepti Choubey, “The CTBT’s Importance for U.S. National Security,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 14, 2009, http://carnegieendowment.org/2009/10/14/ctbt-s-importance-for-u.s.-national-security-pub-23999.

6.   CTBTO, “International Monitoring System.”

7.   Prior to the CTBT’s entry into force, states-parties are defined as those states that have signed the treaty. After entry into force, states-parties will be those that have ratified the accord.

8.   CTBTO, “CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo on the Unusual Seismic Event Detected in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” September 9, 2016, https://www.ctbto.org/press-centre/press-releases/2016/ctbto-executive-secretary-lassina-zerbo-on-the-unusual-seismic-event-detected-in-the-democratic-peoples-republic-of-korea/

9.   On the status of Chinese IMS stations, see CTBTO, “Chinese Monitoring Stations Now Sending Data,” January 6, 2014, https://www.ctbto.org/press-centre/press-releases/2014/chinese-monitoring-stations-now-sending-data/.

10.   CTBTO, “Facility Agreements: The Cement Between Member States, IMS Stations and the CTBTO,” 2016, https://www.ctbto.org/member-states/facility-agreements/.

11.   Ibid. For a discussion of the difficulties involved in negotiating facility agreements, see Ola Dahlman, Svein Mykkeltveit, and Hein Haak, Nuclear Test Ban: Converting Political Visions to Reality (New York: Springer, 2009), p. 109.

12.   For further information on Cooperating National Facilities, see Dahlman, Mykkeltveit, and Haak, Nuclear Test Ban, p. 137. See also Ola Dahlman et al., Detect and Deter: Can Countries Verify the Nuclear Test Ban? (New York: Springer, 2011), p. 202.

13.   Yair Bartal et al., “Optimal Seismic Networks in Israel in the Context of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Vol. 90, No. 1 (2000): 151-165.

14.   For an example of the activities of National Data Centers in the context of Malaysia, see Faisal Izwan Abdul Rashid et al., “The CTBT National Data Centre: Roles and Functions,” n.d., http://www.iaea.org/inis/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/45/097/45097352.pdf?r=1

15.   CTBTO, email correspondence with author. 

16.   Ibid.

17.   Dahlman et al., Detect and Deter, p. 2.

18.   Bernard Massinon, “Benefits of Potential Civil and Scientific Applications of CTBT Verification Technologies,” CTBTO Spectrum, No. 4 (2004), pp. 17-18.

19.   CTBTO, email correspondence with author. 

20.   Ban Ki-moon, “Message From the Secretary General of the United Nations,” in “Scientific Advances in CTBT Monitoring and Verification,” CTBTO, June 2013, p. 5, https://www.ctbto.org/fileadmin/user_upload/SandT_2011/CTBTO_ST11_web_complete.pdf

21.   For examples of the effects of this precedent, see Liviu Horovitz and Robert Golan-Vilella, “Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: How the Dominoes Might Fall After U.S. Ratification,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (2010): 235-257.

22.   For a discussion of the obligations of state signatories prior to entry into force, see Masahiko Asada, “CTBT: Legal Questions Arising From Its Non-Entry-Into-Force,” Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2002): 85-122. 

Stephen Herzog is a Ph.D. student in political science at Yale University. Previously, he directed scientific engagements supporting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and geophysical hazard mitigation for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. 

The Trump administration should not overlook the opportunity to advance scientific and technical measures to strengthen nuclear explosion detection and analysis.

The CTBT at 20: Ambition on the Road to Success

January/February 2017

By Lassina Zerbo

On December 16, I attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Lanzhou, China, to mark the first certification of an International Monitoring System (IMS) station in China’s national network of 11 facilities being established to monitor global compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This represents a milestone for the treaty and illustrates the real progress that has been achieved in cooperating with China on nuclear test monitoring and verification challenges.

Strengthening the relationship with China has been one of my top priorities. My first official travel after taking office as executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty Organization (CTBTO) was to China in August 2013. Shortly thereafter, we secured the provision of monitoring data from Chinese IMS stations to the International Data Centre in Vienna. This flow of data helps to ensure that the verification requirements of the CTBT are being met, providing our member states with a high degree of trust and confidence in our ability to monitor the globe for any signs of nuclear explosions. 

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo presents a certification document for radionuclide monitoring station RN21 to Men Lei, director of the Commission of Disease Control of Gansu Province on December 16, 2016. RN21 is the first of 11 International Monitoring System stations hosted by China to be certified. (Photo credit: CTBTO)We also have achieved significant progress in expanding our monitoring capabilities through enhanced engagement and cooperation with several other member states, in particular the Russian Federation, Ecuador, Argentina, and many African countries. This is helping to create a tailwind effect toward the completion and full operation of the IMS. 

There is a general feeling that the nuclear nonproliferation regime faces significant challenges. It might therefore come as a surprise that I see the CTBT as a “good news” story, continuing along the road to success, even if some of the steps forward take longer than others. 

It is worth recalling that the treaty required three years of intense and often contentious negotiations in Geneva in the mid-1990s, not to mention decades of collaborative scientific research and debate on nuclear test ban verification issues before that. Yet, these heady discussions on science and policy eventually culminated in the adoption of the CTBT by the UN General Assembly in September 1996. 

Immediately afterward, a preparatory commission was created to orchestrate the buildup of the most extensive and ambitious multilateral verification regime ever envisaged. The commission is still with us today even if it might be more accurately termed at this stage an “interim organization.” More than 90 percent of the planned global nuclear test monitoring assets are in place, and the detection threshold is far better than the treaty’s negotiators thought feasible. This has been borne out by the CTBT monitoring system’s accurate and timely detection of all five nuclear tests conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including two in 2016. 

We commemorated the 20th anniversary of the opening for signature of the CTBT last September. Many high-level events were held last year in recognition of the treaty’s role in solidifying a de facto norm against nuclear testing and contributing to remarkable advancements in nuclear test monitoring science and technology. 

An unprecedented, CTBT-specific UN Security Council resolution, Resolution 2310, was adopted that same month, accompanied by a related statement in which the five permanent members underlined their commitment to the treaty. Strong support for the treaty and its verification regime also came from resolutions and statements of the Group of Seven, NATO, the European Parliament, and the International Organisation of La Francophonie.

We now witness almost universal political support in the international community for the objectives of the CTBT, namely an effectively verifiable, credibly enforceable, legal prohibition on nuclear test explosions. With 183 states-signatories and 166 ratifying states, the treaty is one of the legal instruments with the widest adherence in the international security architecture.

Yet, the road goes on. With the ratification of eight key states pending before the CTBT can enter into force, we still have work to do. Thankfully, we do not have to go down this road alone. The efforts of the Friends of the CTBT and the co-coordinators of the Article XIV process (formally, the Conference on Facilitating Entry Into Force of the CTBT) have played and will continue to play a vital role in this regard.

It is worth recalling what all countries have to gain from the entry into force of the treaty. Testing moratoria are certainly useful in their own right, but only an in-force CTBT will establish a legally binding norm and deliver a robust on-site inspection mechanism. Movement on the treaty would buttress the nuclear nonproliferation regime and would help build the confidence needed to move forward on a number of related issues, regionally and globally. Most importantly, it would bring a permanent end to the destabilizing practice of nuclear testing and constitute a firm barrier to a resumption of the nuclear arms race.

As I look ahead to this year, I do so without the foreboding that afflicts some in the arms control community. Instead, I see a road replete with opportunities for more steps forward. For example, in June the CTBTO will hold its Science and Technology 2017 Conference, the sixth in a series of multidisciplinary conferences designed to keep us at the forefront of scientific and technical innovation. Following the recent treaty ratifications by Myanmar and Swaziland, we expect Thailand to follow suit in the coming months, bringing us one step closer to universalization. These and other positive advances can be expected in 2017. 

Of course, navigating a course to full legal implementation of the treaty will require strength, determination, and most importantly, unapologetic ambition. On my recent visit to China, I was struck by the ancient proverb, “Do not be afraid of a long road to success; only be afraid of a shortage of ambition.” The CTBT may be an ambitious goal, but it is a road well worth taking.

Lassina Zerbo is executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.

There is now almost universal political support in the international community for the objectives of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In Memoriam: Sidney D. Drell (1926-2016)

January/February 2017

By Daryl G. Kimball

The world lost one of its most insightful, articulate, and important scientist-arms controllers of the past half century when Sidney D. Drell died on Dec. 21 in Palo Alto, California, due to complications from pneumonia. He was 90. 

For more than five decades, Drell was an energetic, principled, and influential adviser for the executive and legislative branches of government. His work contributed to a more rational U.S. nuclear policy and concrete steps to reduce nuclear dangers. 

Sidney Drell receives the National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony with President Barack Obama on February 1, 2013. (Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)“Sid preferred to work quietly behind the scene to build consensus for policies that would reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, but he spoke truth to power and never ran away from a showdown,” according to long-time friend and collaborator James Goodby. 

Born in 1926 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Drell graduated from Princeton University in 1946. He then studied theoretical physics at the University of Illinois, completing his doctorate in 1949. After teaching stints at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, he settled at Stanford in 1956. There, he played a key role in the development and work of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). Drell served as SLAC’s deputy director from 1969 until retiring in 1998. He also co-founded and taught at Stanford’s multidisciplinary Center for International Security and Arms Control and was president of the American Physical Society in 1986.

Beginning in 1960, Drell became involved on key defense policy questions, particularly those relating to managing and reversing the accelerating nuclear arms race. That summer, he was recruited to become an original member of JASON, a group of leading scientists who provide advice to the government.

Drell became a foremost advocate for Soviet dissident and fellow physicist Andrei Sakharov, whom he met at a conference in 1974. Drell admired Sakharov’s courage in speaking out for human rights and nuclear disarmament. They struck up a friendship and continued to correspond until Sakharov’s death in 1989.

Drell served on science and defense technology advisory committees during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations and later for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He also served on President Bill Clinton’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Although Drell’s advisory work supported the maintenance of nuclear deterrence, he acknowledged he was not completely comfortable with the concept. He believed that nuclear weapons had helped get the West through the Cold War, but he agreed with the moral logic of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1983 Pastoral Letter, which argued that “deterrence cannot be accepted as ‘an end itself.’” 

Through the years, Drell contributed technical expertise for U.S.-Soviet arms limitation agreements, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and more accurate arms control verification and monitoring. In the early 1990s, Drell and the JASON group provided key technical advice that undergirded the decisions not to continue U.S. nuclear testing and to pursue and adopt a true “zero-yield” test ban, and helped shape the current strategy of science-based stockpile stewardship.

Drell consistently argued against nuclear first-strike concepts and “more usable” nuclear weapons and, following the end of the Cold War, pushed for deeper, verifiable nuclear cuts. Along with Goodby, he authored a report in 2005 outlining the rationale for a U.S. force reduced to 500 operationally deployed nuclear weapons by 2012.

Like other leading scientists who came to recognize the grave perils of the bomb, Drell understood the value of an informed and mobilized public. In 1983, he wrote that matters of nuclear weapons and policy are “too important to be left to the experts…. All of us are the targets of these undiscriminating weapons of mass destruction. There is, therefore, no excuse for us not to constitute an informed and an effective public constituency insisting on the imperative of arms control.” 

Drell was a key leader of the Arms Control Association, serving on the Board of Directors from 1978 until 1994, and he continued to generously provide his advice and support until his last days. In the last decade of his life, he was also an important catalyst and adviser for the influential 2007 call to action by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry for a “world free of nuclear weapons” and the joint work they did to promote their proposals.

Drell is survived by his wife, Harriet, and his children, Daniel, Persis, and Joanna.

When I saw him last spring, along with Shultz, at their Hoover Institution office at Stanford University, he was clearly frustrated that more of the actions outlined by the group had not been achieved. But he was still optimistic. He said that although progress may have slowed, “the key is to stay on the path” toward a world without nuclear weapons and “keep pushing things in the right direction.”

Clearly, it will be more difficult to do so without him. As Secretary Perry said on Jan. 3, “The world lost a powerful voice of reason on nuclear issues with the passing of Sidney Drell.”

The world lost one of its most insightful, articulate, and important scientist-arms controllers of the past half century.

REMARKS - Emerging Threats: Outer Space, Cyberspace, and Undersea Cables

January/February 2017

By Frank Rose

We increasingly rely on space, cyberspace, and fiber-optic communications cables in all aspects of our lives. These systems are critical for social and economic activity, but most importantly to defend our security. At the same time, these conduits for communication are vulnerable to state and nonstate actors. The continued and assured access to these capabilities is vital to global strategic stability. 

In 2015, approximately 97 percent of the world’s transoceanic communications transited over privately held, commercial, undersea fiber-optic communications cables. A large-scale outage of these undersea cables would affect critical governmental and business operations, communications, financial transactions, logistics, and transportation. We are concerned that potential adversaries may be looking for vulnerabilities in undersea cables around the world. 

An artist's rendering of Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite. (Photo credit: Space and Missile Systems Center) Cyberthreats to U.S. national and economic security are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication, and severity of impact. The ranges of cyberthreat actors, methods of attack, targeted systems, and victims are also expanding. Adding to the problem, it is not always easy to identify the origin of such attacks.

Further, our reliance on international space systems has risen to an unprecedented global scale. We already face a global threat from electronic warfare systems capable of jamming satellite communications systems and global navigation space systems. In addition, threats to space systems from debris or irresponsible activities are increasing. In particular, we are concerned by Chinese and Russian pursuit of weapons systems to destroy satellites in orbit. The debris created from such activities lingers uncontrollably, thus creating the potential for impacts far beyond the destruction of an individual targeted satellite. 

We should not look at space, cyber, and undersea cables independently of one another. If a determined adversary wants to cut off U.S. and allied access to communications infrastructure, it is likely to deploy capabilities to attack space, cyberspace, and undersea cables at the same time, in a coordinated manner, and across a broad spectrum of means.

There are also cross-domain vulnerabilities. What happens in outer space won’t stay in outer space. Satellites are vulnerable to cyberintrusions, as we saw take place in 2014 when a cyberattack compromised four U.S. weather satellites. Banking, mapping, and other essential parts of the global internet infrastructure are dependent on space assets for services such as timing and location data. Additionally, space and cyberassets are vital to our deterrent and defensive capabilities, including communications, positioning, and nuclear command and control. It is easy to see how attacks in these domains could lead to a wider kinetic conflict. 

It is interesting to see where there are linkages in the policy and diplomatic approach to addressing these threats, especially in space and cyber domains. A common thread is the lack of widely accepted and enforceable norms of responsible behavior. There are existing treaties on space policy and undersea cables, whereas none currently exist relating to cyberspace. In space and cyberspace, we face similar challenges to pursuing traditional arms control, given the dual-use nature of these systems, the number of actors, and the challenges of attribution and verification. To address these challenges, we have worked to pursue consensus among states that international law applies in both domains and further clarify how foundational laws, such as the law of armed conflict and the UN Charter, apply. 

So what does any of this have to do with nuclear arms control and disarmament? Continued progress in reducing nuclear arsenals cannot be divorced from the global security environment or our unconditional commitment to the security of our allies. Ensuring security depends in part on our success in constructing mutually agreed-on norms that referee behavior in these largely unregulated domains. Establishing clear rules of the road in these realms can help create the security conditions for future nuclear arms reductions. 

Going forward, we must enhance and communicate our cross-domain deterrence in a credible manner to achieve and maintain stability. This effort will require better monitoring and verification capabilities to make attribution easier. We also need to be working more closely with our allies. Our worldwide system of alliances is a true “asymmetric advantage” of the United States. Meanwhile, we must look within our own government to ensure we are taking a whole-of-government approach and to avoid the instinct of stove-piping that can paralyze the bureaucracy. I see this area as a priority for the U.S. government now and in the future.

Frank Rose is assistant U.S. secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance in the Obama administration. This piece is adapted from a December 2 speech at the University of Virginia.

These systems are critical to defend our security. At the same time, these conduits for communication are vulnerable to state and nonstate actors.

Trump Nuclear Tweet Sparks Controversy

January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted in December that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability” and later told a television host that he would “outmatch” and “outlast” other potential competitors in a nuclear arms race. 

The comments mostly prompted condemnation and concern in the United States and around the world. Trump tweeted on the morning of Dec. 22 that an expansion would be required “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

Increasing the arsenal would constitute a fundamental departure from U.S. policy and could prompt similar efforts by other nuclear-armed countries.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has reduced the size of its arsenal, including through arms control agreements with Russia, from roughly 19,000 operational warheads in 1991 to 4,571 as of September 2015, according to U.S. government figures. The United States has begun a program to sustain and upgrade the arsenal at a cost that could reach and possibly exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

It is unclear what Trump has in mind, as aides offered interpretations seemingly at odds with his words. Jason Miller, at the time a top spokesman for the Trump transition, said in a statement later that day that the president-elect was referring to “the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it, particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes.” During the campaign, Trump had “emphasized the need to improve and modernize [the U.S.] deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength,” he added.

Despite Miller’s attempt at clarification, Trump seemed to reiterate a willingness to expand the U.S. arsenal in a Dec. 23 telephone conversation with cable news channel MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski. When asked to explain what Trump meant by his tweet, Brzezinski said the president-elect told her, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” 

Transition aides again scrambled to interpret Trump’s comments. Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told NBC that “[i]f another country wants to expand their nuclear capability,” Trump would “not…sit back and allow them to undermine our safety, our sovereignty.” 

“He is going to match other countries and take action,” Spicer said. He added that there would not be a new arms race because Trump will ensure that countries such as Russia understand the president-elect’s resolve and “they will come to their senses.” 

Trump’s statements prompted varied reactions from Russia and China. 

In a press conference on Dec. 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “there is nothing unusual” about what Trump tweeted because, during the campaign, “he talked about the need to strengthen the U.S. nuclear capability and armed forces.”

Putin added that the United States had already “paved the way to a new arms race by withdrawing from the [1972] Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty” and expanding its missile defense capabilities, which prompted Russia to respond by building “efficient means of overcoming this missile defense system and improving its own” offensive nuclear forces. 

But Putin said that Russia “will never be dragged into an arms race to spend more than we can afford,” noting that Russian spending on defense would drop from 4.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2016 to 2.8 percent by 2019. 

During the election campaign, Trump expressed a desire to improve the U.S. relationship with Russia, but did not say whether he would seek to engage in further bilateral arms control beyond the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. 

China is “paying close attention” to Trump’s nuclear pronouncements and declared that the “countries that have the largest nuclear arsenals should bear special responsibility for nuclear disarmament,” said a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. That was a reference to the United States and Russia, which together possess more than 90 percent of the estimated 15,500 nuclear warheads worldwide. 

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers strongly criticized Trump’s tweet and subsequent arms race comments. 

U.S. policy on nuclear weapons “is not something that should be altered with a dangerously vague tweet,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote in a Dec. 24 post on his Facebook page. “The fact is we do not need another nuclear arms race. We have too many nuclear weapons as it is—nearly 5,000—more than enough to meet our national security needs and deter any major adversary.” 

Some Republicans were also dismayed by Trump’s tweet. Outgoing Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) told Politico on Dec. 23 that “the general consensus among my colleagues in Congress is that the world is safer with fewer nuclear weapons than more.”

Do his 23 words foreshadow a fundamental shift from reducing nuclear arsenals?

Time Expires on Obama Nuclear Agenda

January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

President Barack Obama headed into the final days of his presidency with an unfinished nuclear weapons risk-reduction agenda. But as he prepared to hand off control of the nuclear arsenal to President-elect Donald Trump, his administration announced a further reduction to the U.S. nuclear-weapons stockpile.

In a Jan. 11 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Joe Biden revealed that the administration had removed 553 reserve warheads from the military stockpile during the past year, reducing the arsenal to 4,018 warheads. Overall, the administration reduced the stockpile by more than 1,000 warheads since taking office in 2009. In periodically making public the warhead numbers over the past eight years, the Obama administration has been more open about the size of the nuclear stockpile than any previous administration. 

The decision to retire additional reserve warheads came after Obama and his national security team for months had discussed measures to advance the nuclear risk-reduction goals the president first outlined in his April 2009 address in Prague. 

President Barack Obama leaves the stage after his news conference at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit April 1, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)Obama delivered his first major foreign policy address as president on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in Prague on April 5, 2009. The speech outlined his vision for strengthening global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and moving forward on practical, immediate steps “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The administration has highlighted progress in the areas of nonproliferation, the security of nuclear weapons-usable materials, and disarmament over the past eight years. These include securing vulnerable nuclear materials around the world through the nuclear security summit process, measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, the negotiation and U.S. Senate approval of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. 

But other key administration priorities, such as stopping the advance of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, achieving further reductions beyond New START, and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), have not been fulfilled. 

In remarks June 6 at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington, Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, disclosed that the president was reviewing a variety of proposals on nuclear weapons for possible action before the end of his presidency. (See ACT, July/August 2016.) “[O]ur work is not done on this issue,” he said.

The different categories of options under consideration included further reductions in the U.S. stockpile of nondeployed, or reserve, nuclear warheads; “additional steps” to lessen the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear use; reaffirming the “international norm against” nuclear explosive testing; and putting “more nuclear material under appropriate monitoring,” he said.

In addition, Rhodes said the president would continue to evaluate current plans to ramp up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” 

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes said. 

The review did result in actions in a few of those areas. In addition to reducing the warhead count, the United States introduced a resolution in the UN Security Council in September that urged the eight countries that have yet to ratify the CTBT to do so “without further delay” and called on all states to refrain from conducting nuclear tests, emphasizing that current testing moratoria contribute to “international peace and stability.” (See ACT, October 2016.)

The Security Council approved the resolution, the first of its kind to specifically support the CTBT, by a 14-0 vote, with Egypt abstaining. A total of 42 countries, including Israel, co-sponsored the resolution, which comes 20 years after the treaty was opened for signature.

In addition, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting on nuclear security in December that the United States is “embarking on an effort to dilute and dispose of approximately six metric tons of excess plutonium” and is consulting with the IAEA on agency monitoring and verification of the process (See ACT, January/February 2017).

Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, works with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on drafting a statement announcing the Iran nuclear agreement on April, 2, 2015. (Photo credit: Pete Souza/U.S. White House)Yet, no action was taken on most of the options Rhodes said were under consideration. “We did not accomplish all that we hoped,” Biden said. 

News reports last summer and fall indicated that the administration considered adjusting U.S. nuclear declaratory policy to state that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Washington retains and has always retained the option to use nuclear weapons first in extreme circumstances, even if the United States or an ally has not suffered a nuclear attack.

Biden said that both he and Obama strongly believe that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons should be to deter a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. But Obama reportedly decided not to adopt a no-first-use policy due to concerns expressed by some members of his cabinet and close U.S. allies.

The president also considered reducing the number and diversity of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, according to a September 2016 article in The Guardian newspaper.

Obama, with the support of the Defense Department, determined in 2013 that the United States could reduce the size of the deployed arsenal by up to one-third below the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Yet, the president did not unilaterally cut the size of U.S. forces. Rather, he invited Russia to negotiate a further one-third reduction of each country’s strategic nuclear arms, an offer that Moscow has repeatedly rebuffed. 

Other options reportedly considered included reducing the alert status of the nation’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force, reducing military stockpiles of nuclear weapons-useable fissile materials, appointing a blue ribbon presidential commission to assess and identify possible alternatives to current U.S. nuclear modernization plans, and delaying the planned purchase of a new fleet of 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles. 

Although Rhodes in June had expressed concern about the affordability of the nuclear modernization plans, a senior administration official praised the current plans for the nuclear weapons and related infrastructure, which could cost more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years, in a Jan. 4 email to Arms Control Today. “[W]e’re sustaining deterrence by taking steps to ensure that all three legs of our nuclear triad do not age into obsolescence,” the official said.

Officials considered actions such as implementing a no-first-use policy and reductions in nondeployed warheads.

CBO Details Nuclear Savings Options

January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. government could save more than $60 billion in required funding over a decade by reducing the number of nuclear delivery systems and adjusting current nuclear modernization plans while still retaining all three legs of the nuclear triad, according to a December report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). 

The report comes as official cost estimates to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear forces continue to rise and President Barack Obama hands over stewardship of the arsenal to President-elect Donald Trump. In a tweet, Trump declared that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” although it was unclear whether he was referring to maintaining the current modernization program or to further steps that run counter to U.S. efforts to reduce nuclear weapons in numbers and destructive power.

An unarmed Trident II (D-5) missile launches August 31, 2016 from the USS Maryland, an Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine, in a test off the coast of Florida. The Congressional Budget Office estimated savings from reducing the number of ballistic-missile submarines and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. (Photo credit: John Kowalski/U.S. Navy)Currently, nearly every element of the U.S. arsenal is slated to be modernized over the next 20 years, an effort that will require roughly doubling annual spending on nuclear weapons. Most of these efforts are in the early stages, but a few others have yet to begin. Multiple independent studies suggest that the total cost of the current plans could reach and possibly exceed $1 trillion over 30 years.

Senior officials from the Defense and Energy departments have warned for years about the affordability challenges, but argue that the expenditures are needed to sustain a credible nuclear deterrent and can be successfully carried out if appropriately prioritized. Critics in Congress and the nongovernmental arms-control community contend that the current approach exceeds the Obama administration’s stated requirements for nuclear deterrence and that the cost will force damaging cuts to higher-priority military programs given that overall defense budgets are likely to remain constrained even after the Budget Control Act, which imposes caps on military spending, expires in 2021. 

The CBO evaluated three different options to reduce spending on nuclear forces over the next decade as part of larger report titled “Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2016 to 2027.” 

One option would reduce the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarines that launch ballistic missiles by retiring some of the existing systems early, purchasing fewer of the new ones, and delaying purchase of new submarines. A second option would retain only one type of nuclear weapon for bombers by forgoing either the purchase of a new fleet of air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) or the life extension program for the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. A third option would delay the development of a new bomber, known as the B-21, by 10 years (see chart).

Based on CBO calculations, reducing the number of submarines from 14 to eight; delaying purchase of new submarines; reducing the number of deployed ICBMs from 450 to 150; canceling the program to build a new ALCM; deferring the B-21, which is being built primarily for conventional missions but will also have a nuclear capability; and reducing the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,000 would save $64.6 billion over the next decade. 

In addition to assessing the savings from each option, the CBO evaluated arguments for and against each alternative. For example, the CBO noted that reducing the triad to 1,000 deployed warheads would be consistent with Obama’s determination in 2013 “that the United States could maintain a ‘strong and credible’ strategic nuclear deterrent with about one-third fewer weapons deployed than allowed under” the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

Conversely, the CBO said that a problem with “this alternative is that unless a new arms control agreement was reached—which may not be possible in the current international atmosphere—the United States’ decision to reduce its stockpile to 1,000 warheads would be unilateral and could be politically untenable domestically.” 

In addition to the December options report, the CBO published reports in 2013 and 2015 that assessed the total cost to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear forces over the ensuing decade. (See ACT, March 2015.) The agency is required by law to update this study every two years, but by year-end had yet to publish an update covering the period from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2026.

In remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, on Dec. 3, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon is projecting to spend $234 billion on nuclear forces between fiscal years 2017 and 2026. This is an increase of nearly $17 billion over the decade-long estimate the Defense Department released in 2015. 

The $234 billion estimate does not include the Energy Department’s cost to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure, which carries a 10-year price tag of more than $100 billion. (See ACT, May 2016.)

In remarks last summer at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington, Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Obama was continuing to evaluate the nuclear modernization plans. (See ACT, July/August 2016.) As of early January, the administration had not announced any decisions on adjusting the plans or to signal it had made recommendations to the incoming Trump administration on how to proceed with them. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)

The budget office assesses options to cut billions of dollars in projected spending on the nuclear arsenal.


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