Arms control agreements that envision the verified dismantlement of nuclear weapons require the availability of suitable technology to perform the verification. But they also depend on the good faith of the participants and a shared sense of confidence in the integrity of the verification process.
An exercise in demonstrated warhead dismantlement showed that such confidence could be easily disrupted. The exercise, sponsored by the United States and the United Kingdom in 2010 and 2011, was described in a recent paper by Los Alamos scientists. See Review of the U.S.-U.K. Warhead Monitored Dismantlement Exercise by Danielle Kristin Hauck and Iain Russell, Los Alamos National Laboratory, August 4, 2016.
Participants played the roles of the host nation, whose weapons were to be dismantled, and of the monitoring nation, whose representatives were there to verify dismantlement. Confusion and friction soon developed because “the host and monitoring parties had different expectations,” the authors reported.
“The monitoring party did not expect to justify its reasons for performing certain authentication tasks or to justify its rationale for recommending whether a piece of equipment should or should not be used in the monitoring regime. However, the host party expected to have an equal stake in authentication activities, in part because improperly handled authentication activities could result in wrongful non-verification of the treaty.”
“Attempts by the host team to be involved in the authentication activities, and requests for justifications of monitoring party decisions felt intrusive and controlling. Monitoring party rebuffs to the host team reduced the host’s confidence in the sincerity of the monitoring party for cooperative monitoring.”
What emerged is that verified dismantlement of nuclear weapons is not simply a technical problem, though it is also that.
The latest set of so-called New START treaty aggregate data published by the U.S. State Department shows that Russia is continuing to increase the number of nuclear warheads it deploys on its declining inventory of strategic launchers.
Russia now has 259 warheads more deployed than when the treaty entered into force in 2011.
Rather than a nuclear build-up, however, the increase is a temporary fluctuation cause by introduction of new types of launchers that will be followed by retirement of older launchers before 2018. Russia’s compliance with the treaty is not in doubt.
In all other categories, the data shows that Russia and the United States continue to reduce the overall size of their strategic nuclear forces. Continue reading →
The fact that a now-retired nuclear weapon was once located at a now-closed location in the United States shall no longer be considered classified information, the Department of Defense announced last week.
This may seem so trivial and insignificant as to be hardly worth deciding or announcing, but it could have positive practical consequences for current and future declassification efforts.
“The repeated discoveries of this kind of [information] in numerous records [have] impeded the prompt declassification of many documents,” the National Declassification Center said last week, praising the move.
So with the categorical declassification of such information, the declassification of some historical records should now be facilitated and accelerated.
“Secrecy itself is more dangerous than the possession of atomic weapons,” said Edward Teller in a 1989 presentation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Department of Energy posted a transcript of his remarks last week.
CBS’s 60 Minutes program Risk of Nuclear Attack Rises described that Russia may be lowering the threshold for when it would use nuclear weapons, and showed how U.S. nuclear bombers have started flying missions they haven’t flown since the Cold War: Over the North Pole and deep into Northern Europe to send a warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The program follows last week’s program The New Cold War where viewers were shown unprecedented footage from STRATCOM’s command center at Omaha Air Base in Nebraska.
Producer Mary Welch and correspondent David Martin have produced a fascinating and vital piece of investigative journalism showing disturbing new developments in the nuclear relationship between Russia and the United States.
They were generous enough to consult me and include me in the program to discuss the increasing Cold War and dangerous military posturing.
Nuclear Bomber Operations Context
Just a few years ago, U.S. nuclear bombers didn’t spend much time in Europe. They were focused on operations in the Middle East, Western Pacific, and Indian Ocean. Despite several years of souring relations and mounting evidence that the “reset” with Russia had failed or certainly not taken off, NATO couldn’t make itself say in public that Russia gradually was becoming an adversary once again.
Whatever hesitation was left changed in March 2014 when Vladimir Putin sent his troops to invade Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The act followed years of Russian efforts to coerce the Baltic States, growing and increasingly aggressive military operations around European countries, and explicit nuclear threats against NATO countries getting involved in the U.S. ballistic missile defense system.
Granted, NATO may not have been a benign neighbor, with massive expansion eastward of new members all the way up to the Russian border, and a consistent tendency to ignore or dismiss Russian concerns about its security interests.
But whatever else Putin might have thought he would gain from his acts, they have awoken NATO from its detour in Afghanistan and refocused the Alliance on its traditional mission: defense of NATO territory against Russian aggression. As a result, Putin will now get more NATO troops along his western and southern borders, larger and more focused military exercises more frequently in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea, increasing or refocused defense spending in NATO, and a revitalization of a near-slumbering nuclear mission in Europe.
Six years ago the United States was this close to pulling its remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons out of Europe. Only an engrained NATO nuclear bureaucracy aided by the Obama administration’s lack of leadership prevented the withdrawal of the weapons. Russia has complained about them for years but now it seems very unlikely that the modernization of the F-35A with the B61-12 guided bomb can be stopped. The weapons might even get a more explicit role against Russia, although this is still a controversial issue for some NATO members.
But the U.S. military would much prefer to base the nuclear portion of its extended deterrence mission in Europe on strategic bombers rather than the short-range fighter-bombers forward deployed there. The non-strategic nuclear weapons are far too controversial and vulnerable to the myriads of political views in the host countries. Strategic bombers are free of such constraints.
A New STRATCOM-EUCOM Link
Therefore, even before NATO at the Warsaw Summit this summer decided to reinvigorate its commitment to nuclear deterrence, former U.S. European Command (EUCOM) commander General Philip Breedlove told Congress in February 2015, EUCOM had already “forged a link between STRATCOM Bomber Assurance and Deterrence [BAAD] missions to NATO regional exercises” as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve to deter Russia.
Less than two months later, on April 1, 2015, four nuclear-capable B-52H bombers took of from their bases in the United States and flew across the North Pole and North Sea in a simulated strike exercise against Russia. The bombers proceeded all the way to their potential launch points for air-launched cruise missiles before they returned to the United States. Such an exercise had not been conducted since the late-1980s against the Soviet Union. Combined, the four bombers could have delivered 80 long-range nuclear cruise missiles with a combined explosive power of 800 Hiroshima bombs.
Despite its strategic implications, Polar Growl also had a distinctive regional – even limited – objective because of the crisis in Europe. Planning for such regional deterrence scenarios have taken on a new importance during the past couple of decades and they have become central to current planning because it is in such regional scenarios that the United States believes it is most likely that nuclear weapons could actually be used.
“The regional deterrence challenge may be the ‘least unlikely’ of the nuclear scenarios for which the United States must prepare,” Elaine Bunn, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, in 2014 predicted only a few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, “and continuing to enhance our planning and options for addressing it is at the heart of aligning U.S. nuclear employment policy and plans with today’s strategic environment.”
Two weeks after the bombers returned from Polar Growl, Robert Scher, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, told Congress: “We are increasing DOD’s focus on planning and posture to deter nuclear use in escalating regional conflicts.” This includes “enhanced planning to ensure options for the President in addressing the regional deterrence challenge.” (Emphasis added.)
Nuclear Conventional Integration
Much of this increased planning involves conventional weapons such as the new long-range conventional JASSM-ER cruise missile, but the planning also involves nuclear. In fact, conventional and nuclear appear to be integrating in a way they have done before. This effort was described recently by Brian McKeon, the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, during the annual STRATCOM Deterrence Symposium:
In the Department of Defense we’re working to effectively integrate conventional and nuclear planning and operations. Integration is not new but we’re renewing our focus on it because of recent developments and how we see potential adversaries preparing for conflict. This is an area where the focus in Omaha has really led the way and I want to commend Admiral Haney and STRATCOM for being able to shift planning so quickly toward this approach and thinking though conflict. No one wants to think about using nuclear weapons and we all know the principle role of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. But as we’ve seen, out adversaries may not hold the same view.
Let me be clear that when I say integration I do not mean to say we have lowered the threshold for nuclear use or would turn to nuclear weapons sooner in a conventional campaign. As we stated in the Nuclear Posture Review, the United States will “only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” The NPR also emphasized the importance of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, a requirement that has been advanced in our planning consistent with the 2013 Nuclear Employment Guidance, including with non-nuclear strike options.
What I mean by integration is synchronizing our thinking across all domains in a way that maximizes the credibility and flexibility of our deterrent through all phases of conflict and responds appropriately to asymmetrical escalation. For too long, crossing the nuclear threshold was through to move a nuclear conflict out of the conventional dimension and wholly into the nuclear realm. Potential adversaries are exploring ways to cross this threshold with low-yield nuclear weapons to test out resolve, capabilities, and Allied cohesion. We must demonstrate that such a strategy cannot succeed so that it is never attempted. To that end we’re planning and exercising our non-nuclear operations conscious of how they might influence an adversary’s decision to go nuclear.
We also plan for the possibility of ongoing U.S. and Allied operations in a nuclear environment and working to strengthen resiliency of conventional operations to nuclear attack. By making sure our forces are capable of continuing the fight following a limited nuclear use we preserve flexibility for the president. And by explicitly preparing for the implication of an adversary’s limited nuclear use and providing credible options for the President, we strengthen our deterrent and reduce the risk of employment in the first instance.
Regional nuclear scenarios no longer primarily involve planning against what the Bush administration called “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran, but increasingly focus on near-peer adversaries (China) and peer adversaries (Russia). “We are working as part of the NATO alliance very carefully both on the conventional side as well as meeting as part of the NPG [Nuclear Planning Group] looking at what NATO should be doing in response to the Russian violation of the INF Treaty,” Scher explained.
Two months ago, a little over a year after Polar Growl, another bomber strike exercise was launched. This time six bombers (4 B-52s and 2 B-2s) flew closer to Russia and simultaneously over the Arctic Sea, North Sea, Baltic Sea, and North Pacific Ocean. The six Polar Roar sorties required refueling support from 24 KC-135 tankers as well as E4-B Advanced Airborne Command Post and E-6B TACAMO nuclear command and control aircraft.
A longstanding conundrum surrounding efforts to negotiate reductions in nuclear arsenals is how to verify the physical destruction of nuclear warheads to the satisfaction of an opposing party without disclosing classified weapons design information. Now some potential new solutions to this challenge are emerging.
Based on tests that were conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960s in a program known as Cloudgap, U.S. officials determined at that time that secure and verifiable weapon dismantlement through visual inspection, radiation detection or material assay was a difficult and possibly insurmountable problem.
“If the United States were to demonstrate the destruction of nuclear weapons in existing AEC facilities following the concept which was tested, many items of classified weapon design information would be revealed even at the lowest level of intrusion,” according to a 1969 report on Demonstrated Destruction of Nuclear Weapons.
But in a newly published paper, researchers said they had devised a method that should, in principle, resolve the conundrum.
“We present a mechanism in the form of an interactive proof system that can validate the structure and composition of an object, such as a nuclear warhead, to arbitrary precision without revealing either its structure or composition. We introduce a tomographic method that simultaneously resolves both the geometric and isotopic makeup of an object. We also introduce a method of protecting information using a provably secure cryptographic hash that does not rely on electronics or software. These techniques, when combined with a suitable protocol, constitute an interactive proof system that could reject hoax items and clear authentic warheads with excellent sensitivity in reasonably short measurement times,” the authors wrote.
In another recent attempt to address the same problem, “we show the viability of a fundamentally new approach to nuclear warhead verification that incorporates a zero-knowledge protocol, which is designed in such a way that sensitive information is never measured and so does not need to be hidden. We interrogate submitted items with energetic neutrons, making, in effect, differential measurements of both neutron transmission and emission. Calculations for scenarios in which material is diverted from a test object show that a high degree of discrimination can be achieved while revealing zero information.”
But the technology of nuclear disarmament and the politics of it are two different things.
For its part, the U.S. Department of Defense appears to see little prospect for significant negotiated nuclear reductions. In fact, at least for planning purposes, the Pentagon foresees an increasingly nuclear-armed world in decades to come.
A new DoD study of the Joint Operational Environment in the year 2035 avers that:
“The foundation for U.S. survival in a world of nuclear states is the credible capability to hold other nuclear great powers at risk, which will be complicated by the emergence of more capable, survivable, and numerous competitor nuclear forces. Therefore, the future Joint Force must be prepared to conduct National Strategic Deterrence. This includes leveraging layered missile defenses to complicate adversary nuclear planning; fielding U.S. nuclear forces capable of threatening the leadership, military forces, and industrial and economic assets of potential adversaries; and demonstrating the readiness of these forces through exercises and other flexible deterrent operations.”
China’s nuclear forces are limited compared with those of Russia and the United States. Nonetheless, its arsenal is slowly increasing both in numbers of warheads and delivery vehicles.
In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook on Chinese nuclear forces published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we estimate that China has a stockpile of about 260 nuclear warheads for delivery by a growing diversity of land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and bombers.
Changes over the past year include fielding of the new dual-capable DF-26 road-mobile intermediate-rage ballistic missile, the reported fielding of a new nuclear version (Mod 6) of the DF-21 road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile, more flight-tests of the long-rumored DF-41 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, and the slow readying of the Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
China is also modernizing its aging fleet of H-6 bombers, some of which may have a secondary nuclear role.
Although China is still thought to be fielding more DF-31A launchers, the overall number of ICBM launchers has not increased since 2011 but remained at 50-75 launchers. The oldest of these, the liquid-fuel DF-4, apparently has an extra load of missiles but is thought to be close to retirement. None of the new ICBMs are thought to have reloads. Continue reading →
The presidential candidates’ debates will soon occur, and the voters must know where the candidates stand on protecting the United States against catastrophic nuclear attacks. While debating foreign policy and national security issues, the Democratic and Republican candidates could reach an apparent agreement about the greatest threat facing the United States, similar to what happened on September 30, 2004. During that first debate between then President George W. Bush and then Senator John Kerry (now Secretary of State), they appeared to agree when posed the question: ”What is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?” Kerry replied, “Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation.” He went on to critique what he perceived as the Bush administration’s slow rate of securing hundreds of tons of nuclear material in the former Soviet Union.
When Bush’s turn came, he said, “First of all, I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network. And that’s why proliferation is one of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer.” President Bush also mentioned that his administration had devoted considerable resources toward securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Despite this stated agreement, the two candidates disagreed considerably on how to deal with nuclear threats. Today, the leading Democratic and Republican candidates appear to be in even further disagreement on this issue than Bush and Kerry, while nuclear dangers arguably look even more dangerous. I will not analyze each candidate’s views, especially because their views could change between the time of writing this president’s message in late June and the start of the debates in September. I think it is more useful here to outline several of the major themes on nuclear policy that should be addressed in the campaign and during the debates.
The most fundamental theme is: what is the role or roles of U.S. nuclear weapons? Deterrence is the easy answer, but against what or whom? That is, should nuclear weapons only be used when another nuclear-armed state uses them against the United States or U.S. allies or should the mission be expanded to include deterrence against massive biological attacks, for instance? Assuming the next president wants his policy team to elucidate that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is solely for deterring others’ use of nuclear weapons, the next question is: should the United States have a no-first-use policy of not launching nuclear weapons before others launch nuclear weapons?
Such a policy would emphasize having nuclear weapons that would be secure against a nuclear attack that would come first from an enemy. For example, deployed submarines underneath the surface of the oceans would provide this type of secure force, whereas land-based nuclear-armed missiles and bombers could be more vulnerable to an incoming attack. Would the next president want to reduce the nuclear triad to a single leg of ballistic missile submarines? This decision would require considerable political courage and would have to withstand opposition from proponents who would want to keep the Air Force’s legs of the triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers. However, the Air Force could transform its nuclear forces to have solely conventionally-armed missiles and bombers and in effect, it could have more militarily usable weapons that would not have to cross the high threshold of nuclear use.
Another argument for shifting to having just submarines deploy nuclear weapons is the cost savings from having to maintain nuclear arms for land-based missiles and bombers. This leads to the debate topic of whether the United States should spend up to $1 trillion in the coming decades on “modernizing” its nuclear forces. All three legs of the triad are showing their age. Each leg will require $100 billion or more to upgrade the launching platforms of missiles, bombers, and submarines, and in addition, there would be several $100 billion more in refurbishing and maintaining the half dozen types of nuclear warheads plus the related infrastructure costs. Would a presidential candidate seize the opportunity to save hundreds of billions of dollars by smartly downsizing U.S. nuclear forces?
The candidates would have to confront the promises made by the Obama administration to key Republican senators to “modernization” of the nuclear arsenal. This commitment was a crucial part of the bargain to convince enough Republican senators to vote in favor of the New START agreement with Russia in 2010. On June 17, 2016, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) and Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) sent a letter to President Obama to remind him of this commitment. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and former Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher have called for Congress not to fund the proposed nuclear-armed cruise missile, known as the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), because: there is no compelling military need; it could lower the threshold of nuclear use; and it is too costly at an estimate of up to $30 billion.
New START was a relatively modest reduction in strategic nuclear forces. The tough challenge for the next president is whether further reductions with Russia are even possible given the heightened tensions over Ukraine and other sticking points between Russia and NATO, as well as between Russia and the United States. Going much lower in numbers of strategic nuclear arms might require a rethinking of the nuclear weapons configurations in both nuclear superpowers. Thus, the next president will need a highly capable team who will understand U.S.-Russia relations, the concerns of certain NATO allies, the concerns of East Asian allies, namely Japan and South Korea, as well as the effect on China.
China has remained apart from nuclear arms reductions, although Chinese leaders have made their views clear that they want to ensure that China has a secure nuclear deterrent. While China has for decades been content to have a relatively small nuclear force, there have been signs in recent years of a buildup and modernization of Chinese nuclear weapons and associated delivery platforms, particularly the ballistic missile submarines that have recently demonstrated (after years of technical setbacks) the capability to deploy further out to sea and within striking range of the United States. The next president will have to wrestle with a host of political and military challenges from China, and in the nuclear area, he or she will have to determine how best to deter China without having China further buildup its nuclear arms.
A major issue of concern to China is the potential buildup of U.S. missile defense beyond just a relatively small number of missile interceptors. The ostensible purpose of this very limited U.S. missile defense system is to counter North Korean missiles and Iranian missiles, which are still relatively few in number in terms of longer range missiles. China has been concerned that even a limited or “small” missile defense system could threaten China’s capability to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the United States.
In recent weeks, some senators have opened up a debate about whether to remove the word “limited” in the Missile Defense Authorization Act. In particular, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) have taken such action in the Senate Armed Services Committee, while Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) has sought to restore the word “limited.” Over the past 20 years, the debate in Congress has shifted, such that there is really no debate about whether the United States should have some strategic missile defense system; instead the debate has been about how much the United States should spend on a limited system and how limited it should be. The next president has an opportunity to renew this debate on first principles: that is, whether a strategic missile system provides some crisis stability, whether this system would impede further nuclear arms reductions, and whether this system could achieve adequate technical effectiveness.
I will save (until a future president’s message) the challenges of Iran and North Korea. For this message, I will close by noting that both the George W. Bush administration and the Barack Obama administration made significant progress in securing and reducing nuclear materials that could be vulnerable to theft by terrorists. Preventing nuclear terrorism is very much a bipartisan issue, as is reducing any and all nuclear dangers. How will the next president build on the tremendous legacies of the two previous presidents in keeping the world’s leaders focused on achieving much better security over nuclear materials? Should the Nuclear Security Summit process be continued? What other cooperative international mechanisms can and should be implemented? As the leader of the world’s superpower, the next president must lead and must cooperate with other leaders in the shared endeavor of making the world safer against nuclear threats. As citizens, let’s encourage the candidates to debate seriously these issues and provide practical plans for reducing nuclear dangers.
I am grateful to all the supporters of FAS and readers of the PIR.
The George W. Bush Administration is not typically viewed as the paragon of arms control. This was the Administration that withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, agreed to the Moscow Treaty that same year with no verification provisions, and generally eschewed traditional approaches to arms control, including negotiations and treaties, as Cold War legacies. To be sure, in practice the Administration’s minimal attempts at arms control failed to produce significant results; but in principle, creative and new approaches cannot be so readily discarded. With that in mind, this article is a thought experiment. Some of the proposals suggested here are radical and come with major hurdles, but a non-traditional approach to arms control, based on opportunities rather than challenges, can hopefully generate new thinking.
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Ever since the United States began developing a missile defense system, the focus has been on pursuing a robust missile defense system. As not much progress has been made on boost phase interception, it becomes mandatory to study a technology that could make the midcourse system of the ballistic missile more vulnerable to enemy missile defense system. At present, with counter measures like decoys, chaffs, and multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), the mid-course phase of the ballistic missile becomes a complicated phase of interception. The Multiple Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV), a program of the United States, is believed to negate these challenges of the missile defense system in the mid-course phase.
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The special nature of nuclear energy requires particular safety and security conditions and stronger protective measures. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as do other international and regional organizations, provides assessment, but it does not know a great deal about the security status of most Member States. It is necessary to learn of and determine the needs and concerns of a State for improving legal framework, reviewing detection of and response to illicit trafficking, and in order to develop a strategic plan that will enhance work that results in tangible improvements of security.
Nuclear law has an international dimension because the risks of nuclear materials do not respect borders. Terrorist acts defy the law; they don’t belong to a State. The possibility of transboundary impacts requires harmonization of policies, programs, and legislation. Several international legal instruments have been adopted in order to codify obligations of States in various fields, which can limit national legislation. There are legal and governmental responsibilities regarding the safe use of radiation sources, radiation protection, the safe management of radioactive waste, and the transportation of radioactive material.
The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 represented a clear challenge, but they must not stand as obstacles in the development of nuclear technology. It is necessary to reinforce these efforts in order to improve nuclear energy security, because energy is a vital issue that cannot wait.
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