Environmental Assessment Reveals New Details About the Air Force’s ICBM Replacement Plan

Any time a US federal agency proposes a major action that “has the potential to cause significant effects on the natural or human environment,” they must complete an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. An EIS typically addresses potential disruptions to water supplies, transportation, socioeconomics, geology, air quality, and other factors in great detail––meaning that one can usually learn a lot about the scale and scope of a federal program by examining its Environmental Impact Statement.

What does all this have to do with nuclear weapons, you ask?

Well, given that the Air Force’s current plan to modernize its intercontinental ballistic missile force involves upgrading hundreds of underground and aboveground facilities, it appears that these actions have been deemed sufficiently “disruptive” to trigger the production of an EIS.

To that end, the Air Force recently issued a Notice of Intent to begin the EIS process for its Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program––the official name of the ICBM replacement program. Usually, this notice is coupled with the announcement of open public hearings, where locals can register questions or complaints with the scope of the program. These hearings can be influential; in the early 1980s, tremendous public opposition during the EIS hearings in Nevada and Utah ultimately contributed to the cancellation of the mobile MX missile concept. Unfortunately, in-person EIS hearings for the GBSD have been cancelled due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic; however, they’ve been replaced with something that might be even better.

The Air Force has substituted its in-person meetings for an uncharacteristically helpful and well-designed website––gbsdeis.com––where people can go to submit comments for EIS consideration (before November 13th!). But aside from the website being just a place for civic engagement and cute animal photos, it is also a wonderful repository for juicy––and sometimes new––details about the GBSD program itself.

The website includes detailed overviews of the GBSD-related work that will take place at the three deployment bases––F.E. Warren (located in Wyoming, but responsible for silos in Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska), Malmstrom (Montana), and Minot (North Dakota)––plus Hill Air Force Base in Utah (where maintenance and sustainment operations will take place), the Utah Test and Training Range (where missile storage, decommissioning, and disposal activities will take place), Camp Navajo in Arizona (where rocket boosters and motors will be stored), and Camp Guernsey in Wyoming (where additional training operations will take place).



Taking a closer look at these overviews offers some expanded details about where, when, and for how long GBSD-related construction will be taking place at each location.

For example, previous reporting seemed to indicate that all 450 Minuteman Launch Facilities (which contain the silos themselves) and “up to 45” Missile Alert Facilities (each of which consists of a buried and hardened Launch Control Center and associated above- or below-ground support buildings) would need to be upgraded to accommodate the GBSD. However, the GBSD EIS documents now seem to indicate that while all 450 Launch Facilities will be upgraded as expected, only eight of the 15 Missile Alert Facilities (MAF) per missile field would be “made like new,” while the remainder would be “dismantled and the real property would be disposed of.”

Currently, each Missile Alert Facility is responsible for a group of 10 Launch Facilities; however, the decision to only upgrade eight MAFs per wing––while dismantling the rest––could indicate that each MAF could be responsible for up to 18 or 19 separate Launch Facilities once GBSD becomes operational. If this is true, then this near-doubling of each MAF’s responsibilities could have implications for the future vulnerability of the ICBM force’s command and control systems.

The GBSD EIS website also offers a prospective construction timeline for these proposed upgrades. The website notes that it will take seven months to modernize each Launch Facility, and 12 months to modernize each Missile Alert Facility. Once construction begins, which could be as early as 2023, the Air Force has a very tight schedule in order to fully deploy the GBSD by 2036: they have to finish converting one Launch Facility per week for nine years. It is expected that construction and deployment will begin at F.E. Warren between 2023 and 2031, followed by Malmstrom between 2025 and 2033, and finally Minot between 2027 and 2036.

Although it is still unclear exactly what the new Missile Alert Facilities and Launch Facilities will look like, the EIS documents helpfully offer some glimpses of the GBSD-related construction that will take place at each of the three Air Force bases over the coming years.

In addition to the temporary workforce housing camps and construction staging areas that will be established for each missile wing, each base is expected to receive several new training, storage, and maintenance facilities. With a single exception––the construction of a new reentry system and reentry vehicle maintenance facility at Minot––all of the new facilities will be built outside of the existing Weapons Storage Areas, likely because these areas are expected to be replaced as well. As we reported in September, construction has already begun at F.E. Warren on a new underground Weapons Generation Facility to replace the existing Weapons Storage Area, and it is expected that similar upgrades are planned for the other ICBM bases.



Finally, the EIS documents also provide an overview of how and where Minuteman III disposal activities will take place. Upon removal from their silos, the Minutemen IIIs will be transported to their respective hosting bases––F.E. Warren, Malmstrom, or Minot––for temporary storage. They will then be transported to Hill Air Force Base, the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR), or Camp Najavo, in Arizona. It is expected that the majority of the rocket motors will be stored at either Hill AFB or UTTR until their eventual destruction at UTTR, while non-motor components will be demilitarized and disposed of at Hill AFB. To that end, five new storage igloos and 11 new storage igloos will be constructed at Hill AFB and UTTR, respectively. If any rocket motors are stored at Camp Navajo, they will utilize existing storage facilities.



After the completion of public scoping on November 13th (during which anyone can submit comments to the Air Force via Google Form), the next public milestone for the GBSD’s EIS process will occur in spring 2022, when the Air Force will solicit public comments for their Draft EIS. When that draft is released, we should learn even more about the GBSD program, and particularly about how it impacts––and is impacted by––the surrounding environment. These particular aspects of the program are growing in significance, as it is becoming increasingly clear that the US nuclear deterrent––and particularly the ICBM fleet deployed across the Midwest––is uniquely vulnerable to climate catastrophe. Given that the GBSD program is expected to cost nearly $264 billion through 2075, Congress should reconsider whether it is an appropriate use of public funds to recapitalize on elements of the US nuclear arsenal that could ultimately be rendered ineffective by climate change.


Additional background information:

This publication was made possible by generous contributions from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New Land Foundation, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Image sources: Air Force Global Strike Command. 2020. “Environmental Impact Statement for the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent Deployment and Minuteman III Decommissioning and Disposal: Public Scoping Materials.”

“Biosecurity board grapples with how to rein in risky flu studies” (Science)

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity met last week to discuss Gain of Function (GOF) studies. A topic of debate for the past several years, GOF studies involving  H5N1 avian influenza and accidents at federal high containment laboratories caused the U.S. government to declare a moratorium in 2014. To find out more about the meeting, including the concerns and recommendations of opponents and researchers, read the article published in Science: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/01/biosecurity-board-grapples-how-rein-risky-flu-studies

The Evolution of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group

In March 2013, the Senate voted down an amendment offered by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) to cut $700,000 from their budget that was set-aside for the National Security Working Group (NSWG). What many did not realize at the time was that this relatively small and obscure proposed cut would have eliminated one of the last traces of the bipartisan Congressional approach to debating arms control.

The NSWG first began as the Arms Control Observer Group, which helped to build support for arms control in the Senate. In recent years, there have been calls from both Democrats and Republicans to revive the Observer Group, but very little analysis of the role it played. Its history illustrates the stark contrast in the Senate’s attitude and approach to arms control issues during the mid- to late 1980s compared with the divide that exists today between the two parties.


The Arms Control Observer Group

The Arms Control Observer Group was first formed in 1985. At the time, the United States was engaged in talks with the Soviet Union on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. To generate support for ongoing negotiations, Majority Leader Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), and Minority Leader Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), with the endorsement of President Ronald Reagan, created the bipartisan Arms Control Observer Group. The Observer Group consisted of twelve senators, with four senators, two from each party, serving as co-chairs[ref]The first members of the Group were Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island), Al Gore (D-Tennessee), Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), Pat Moynihan (D-New York), Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma), John Warner (R-Virginia), and Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyoming).[/ref] and created an official role for senators to join U.S. delegations as they negotiated arms control treaties. As observers, its members had two duties: to consult with and advise U.S. arms control negotiating teams, and “to monitor and report to the Senate on the progress and development of negotiations.”[ref]Foreword, Report of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group Delegation to the Opening of the Arms ControlNegotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9-12, (III) 1985.[/ref]

During meetings with U.S. State Department negotiators, senators were able to present their views, ask questions, and even engage in candid and confidential exchanges of ideas and information. Senators were also allowed to meet with members of the Soviet delegations on an “informal” basis.[ref]Origin and Summary of Activities, Report of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group Delegation to the Opening of the Arms Control, Negotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9-12, 1985.[/ref] The Observer Group believed that the “interplay of ideas” would assist negotiators and, if negotiations failed, the members would help their fellow senators explain the reasons why to the American public.[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

The Observer Group served a number of purposes. First, it was intended to supplement the activities of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Byrd argued that the process that existed up until that point—where the Foreign Relations Committee became experts on treaties and the full Senate only began to understand the issues after the negotiation—was not functioning properly. Its creators argued, “the full Senate has focused its attention in the past only sporadically on the vital aspects of arms control negotiations, usually developing a knowledge and understanding of the issues being negotiated after the fact…the result of this fitful process has been generally unsatisfactory in recent years.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] During the previous decade, the Executive Branch had failed to garner enough Senate support for several arms control initiatives: the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty of 1976, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1974, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) of 1979, none of which were ratified by the United States. Although there had been previous attempts to involve senators in arms control negotiations, the Observer group provided “more regular and systematic involvement” from the full Senate long before a vote took place. [ref]Ibid[/ref]

The formation of the Observer Group publicly demonstrated the important role of arms control in national security matters. The resolution that created the group states that senators have the “obligation to become as knowledgeable as possible concerning the salient issues, which are being addressed in the context of the negotiating process. Any accord with the Soviet Union to control or reduce our strategic weapons carries considerable weight for our nation.”[ref]Transcript of Press Conference of Observer Group in Geneva, March 12, 1985, Report of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group Delegation to the Opening of the Arms Control, Negotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9-12, 1985.[/ref] According to Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), a founding member of the Observer Group, “the goal [was] to have the Senate fulfill both halves of its constitutional responsibilities, not only the consent half—that’s what we’ve been looking to primarily in the past—but also the advice half.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Additionally, the Observer Group helped develop institutional knowledge and expertise on arms control within the Senate. The Group’s founding members stated that they believed it was necessary to become “completely conversant” in issues related to treaty negotiations and that such knowledge was “critical” to the Senate’s understanding of the issues involved.[ref]Origin and Summary of Activities, Report of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group Delegation to the Opening of the Arms Control, Negotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva, Switzerland, March 9-12, 1985.[/ref] To achieve that goal, they held regular behind closed-door briefings on negotiations for senators and their staff and some staffers were able to review related classified materials.  Observer Group members were conversant in issues related to previous arms control treaties, missile defense, the connection between strategic offense and defense, and treaty compliance.

Above all, the Observer Group was intended to help build bipartisan support for President Reagan’s arms control initiatives. The group was seen as a mediating body.[ref]]Janne E. Nolan, “Preparing for the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review,” Arms Control Today, November 2000, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2000_11/nolan[/ref] When it was formed, Senators Dole and Byrd co-authored a resolution stating that the Observer Group was part of “an ongoing process to reestablish a bipartisan spirit in this body’s consideration of vital national security and foreign policy issues.” Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), who was one of the original members of the Observer Group, agreed by affirming, “The observer group is tremendously important to forming a consensus on which ratification might occur.” The Group’s 1985 report to Congress endorsed “the broad bipartisan support of the Senate for the Administration’s arms control efforts…determination to be as patient as necessary to achieve a sound agreement…the seriousness with which the Senate, including the Observer group intends to fulfill its constitutionally-mandated role in the treaty-making process.” This opinion was also shared by the Reagan administration. In a letter to Senators Dole and Byrd, Secretary of State George Shultz stated that he thought the Observer Group would help facilitate unity on arms control.

It is difficult to demonstrate the extent of its influence as the years the Observer Group was most active were also the years in which arms control was seen by both parties as a vital part of U.S. policy.  The success of these initiatives was clearly not solely due to the Observer Group, but it did play a role. Every one of the original Group’s members voted in favor of the INF Treaty in 1988, which passed 93-5.  Similarly, all of the senators within the Group voted in favor of ratifying the 1992 START Treaty, which passed 93-6.


The National Security Working Group

Towards the end of the 1990s, the Senate’s attitude towards arms control changed. Negotiations between the United States and Russia on a legally binding nuclear reduction treaty had stalled. The Senate had voted down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Reflecting this changing point of view, in 1999, Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), wanted to further diminish the Senate’s focus and expertise on arms control issues. He proposed an amendment that expanded the Observer Group’s purview to include observing talks related to missile defense and export controls and renamed it the National Security Working Group. For nearly a decade during the George W. Bush administration, which pursued relatively little in terms of legally binding arms control agreements, the NSWG was relatively dormant.

This changed in 2009 under the Obama administration when the Executive Branch started briefing senators about the ongoing New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) negotiations. From July 6, 2009, when President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement to reduce American and Russian nuclear arsenals, to April 10, 2010, when they signed the negotiated treaty, the NSWG was revived in order to give senators a role in observing the negotiation process. During this ten-month period, the NSWG began meeting again. The meetings were open to members of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees and were well attended, with roughly 50 percent attendance from those who were invited. Senators who participated in the Working Group knew it was a serious matter and paid attention to it. As a result of their attendance, they left meetings better informed on issues related to arms control.[ref]Congressional Staffer (April 4, 2013), personal interview.[/ref]

Throughout the course of Senate deliberation of New START, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) served as the Republican Party’s key interlocutor with Democrats.[ref]Kyl, Jon, Memo to National Security Working Group Republican Members: Report on the NSWG CODEL to Observe the Geneva Negotiations, November 23, 2009, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/images/091123_20091121_-_Kyl_Memo_to_NSWG_-_NSWG_START_mission.pdf.[/ref] Unlike his predecessors in the Observer Group, Senator Kyl did not see the Working Group as a vehicle for bipartisan cooperation and consensus building. Senator Kyl used his position as the chief negotiator to disrupt the Obama administration’s legislative agenda on arms control.

Senator Kyl used issues peripheral to the treaty, such as missile defense and modernization of the nuclear stockpile, to “slow roll” the legislative process and prevent the administration from pursuing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which he ardently opposed.[ref]Congressional Staffer (February 14, 2014), personal interview.[/ref] According to one account, Senator Kyl “was not using the Working Group. It was just a tool to stop the policy. There wasn’t a getting to yes option. It wasn’t there to get to yes. If the members of the group aren’t inclined to get to yes, then the mechanism won’t get them there.”  Further, he “came prepared to ask tough questions, not just to listen and probe. He was there to look for chinks in the arms and attack in front of his colleagues. He wanted his colleagues to see it.”[ref]Congressional Staffer (April 4, 2013), personal interview.[/ref]

In an effort to prevent Senator Kyl from disrupting meetings, Senate staff made the NSWG open to all members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. They also made sure that senior Democratic leadership was present for all of the NSWG meetings. Either Senator John Kerry (D-MA) or Carl Levin (D-MI) served as Chair and were both prepared to answer all questions and concerns.

Despite this impediment, senators still appear to have found the Working Group useful. Senator Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the NSWG provided an opportunity to bring senators in at the beginning of the negotiation process, and “through the group” there were “many opportunities to learn of the progress and details of negotiations and to provide our advice and views to the administration throughout the process.” He praised the NSWG’s work, arguing that it was a “key” part of the treaty ratification process because it allowed senators to begin meeting with the administration “early in the process of negotiation” before New START was finalized. He said that during the New START process, “members of the National Security Working Group asked a great number of questions, received answers at a number of meetings, stayed abreast of the negotiation details, and provided advice to the administration.” Finally, he added that, through the NSWG, the administration had the opportunity to respond to senators’ questions and concerns, which helped to avoid problems during the Senate’s consideration of the treaty.[ref]Senator Carl Levin (MI), “Authorizing Expenditures by Committees,” Congressional Record (March 5, 2013), p. S1103.[/ref]

The Senate was less supportive of arms control this time around. Even with senators actively involved in the NSWG, only 13 Republicans ended up supporting the treaty. Of those 13, only four Republicans were members of the Working Group (Senators Lugar, Corker, Voinovich, and Cochran). Among those four, only Senator Lugar was a particularly strong advocate for the treaty.

At best, the Working Group had a mixed track record and certainly did not have the same kind of success as the Observer Group. Only two senators traveled to observe New START negotiations. There was no spirit of cooperation or strong bipartisan support for the treaty. The Working Group essentially became a courtroom where New START could be prosecuted.


The Future of the NSWG

Since the vote on New START, the NSWG has not been any more successful in helping to foster bipartisanship. At the beginning of the 113th session of Congress, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) were appointed co-chairs.  Senator Rubio, like Senator Kyl, has attempted to impede the Obama Administration’s work on arms control.[ref]Kristine Bergstrom, “Rubio vs Gottemoeller: The New Partisan Politics of Senate Nuclear Confirmations,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 7, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/03/07/rose-gottemoeller-marco-rubio-and-new-partisan-politics-of-senate-nuclear-confirmations/h2mq.[/ref]

While the cooperative atmosphere that surrounded the Arms Control Observer Group seems like an anachronism in today’s political climate, this is not meant to argue that senators within the Working Group need to agree on everything. There were major disagreements over nuclear policy during the Reagan administration and at times, heated discussions within the Observer Group. The difference was that the Observer Group was effective because the senators who were in it believed that arms control could advance U.S. national interests and wanted the group to succeed.

Today, the NSWG suffers from three broader trends within the United States that inhibit this attitude. The first is that the partisanship that exists in the Working Group is a reflection of the divisions in Congress. Given this dynamic, if there is any chance for the NSWG to serve as a valuable forum, individuals looking for the spotlight cannot be given the opportunity to hijack it. Secondly, since the end of the Cold War, detailed, negotiated arms control agreements are decreasingly seen as important to advancing U.S. national interests. There is diminishing prestige or interest in being a member of the NSWG or in supporting arms control. Thirdly, the Republican Party is far more skeptical about any legally binding international commitments than it once was.

These trends are unfortunate. The fact is that arms control still has a role to play in advancing U.S. interests and promoting international peace and stability. There are numerous issues that the United States and Russia will still need to address together. They continue to cooperate on issues related to Iran and reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. They will likely still continue to communicate about issues related to U.S. missile defense deployment. Some think that current problems between the United States and Russia are evidence that this is not the case, but it was this kind of tension that led both countries to arms control in the first place. For this reason, diplomacy will remain an important policy tool for preventing catastrophic war between the two countries.

With diminishing nuclear policy expertise in a divided Senate, there is a need for a group of engaged, knowledgeable senators invested in arms control. For this reason, the NSWG will continue to have the opportunity to play a constructive role in informing the Senate on these issues and allowing senators into the diplomatic process.

Nickolas Roth is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Nickolas Roth previously worked as a policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he wrote extensively about the industrial infrastructure responsible for maintaining the nuclear weapons stockpile. Mr. Roth has a B.A. in History from American University and a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland, where he is currently a research fellow. Mr. Roth’s written work has appeared or been cited in dozens of media outlets around the world, including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Asahi Shimbun, Boston Globe, and Newsweek.  


American Scientists and Nuclear Weapons Policy

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” warned British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke more than 200 years ago. Having recently delved into reading about the history of the first group of American atomic scientists and their efforts to deal with the nuclear arms race, I have realized that Burke was right. More so, I would underscore that the ideas of these intellectual path-breakers are still very much alive today, and that even when we are fully cognizant of this history we are bound to repeat it. By studying these scientists’ ideas, Robert Gilpin in his 1962 book, American Scientists and Nuclear Weapons Policy, identifies three schools of thought: (1) control, (2) finite containment, and (3) infinite containment.

The control school had its origins in the Franck Report, which had James Franck, an atomic scientist at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago serve as the lead drafter of the report which argued that “any international agreement on prevention of nuclear armaments must be backed by actual and efficient controls.” Seventy Manhattan Project scientists signed this report in June 1945, which was then sent to Secretary of War Henry Stimson. They suggested that instead of detonating atomic bombs on Japan, the United States might demonstrate the new weapon on “a barren island” and thus say to the world, “You see what sort of a weapon we had but did not use. We are ready to renounce its use in the future if other nations join us in this renunciation and agree to the establishment of an efficient control.” As we all know, the United States government did not take this advice during the Second World War.

But in 1946, the United States put forward in the Acheson-Lilienthal Report (in which J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, served as the lead drafter) ideas for international control of atomic energy. In the form of the Baruch Plan, this proposal before the fledging United Nations faced opposition from the Soviet Union, which wanted to arm itself with nuclear weapons before accepting a U.S. plan that could leave the United States wielding a monopoly on nuclear arms. However, the control school has been kept alive in part, through the founding in 1957 of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has the dual mission to promote peaceful nuclear power and safeguard these programs. Periodically, concepts are still put forward to create multilateral means to exert some control over uranium enrichment and reprocessing of plutonium, the methods to make fissile material for nuclear reactors or bombs. Many of the founders and leading scientists of FAS such as Philip Morrison and Linus Pauling belonged to the control school.

Starting in the late 1940s, disillusionment about the feasibility of international control was setting in among several atomic scientists active in FAS and advisory roles for the government. They began to see the necessity for making nuclear weapons to contain the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, there were those who believed that international controls should continue to be pursued in parallel with production of atomic bombs. Thus, a sharp division did not exist between the control and finite containment schools of thought. Oppenheimer exemplified this view in a speech on September 17, 1947, to the National War College where he extolled the “soundness” of the control proposals but lamented that “the very bases for international control between the United States and the Soviet Union were being eradicated by a revelation of their deep conflicts of interest, the deep and apparently mutual repugnance of their ways of life, and the apparent conviction on the part of the Soviet Union of the inevitably of conflict—and not in ideas alone, but in force.”

Reading this, I think of the dilemma the United States faces with Iran over efforts to control the Iranian nuclear program while confronting decades of mistrust. One big difference between Iran and the Soviet Union is that Iran, as a non-nuclear weapon state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is legally obligated to not make or acquire nuclear explosives whereas the Soviet Union never had such legal restrictions. Thus, Iran has already agreed to accept controls through safeguards on its nuclear program. The question is what additional controls Iran will agree to accept in order to provide needed assurances that it does not have a nuclear weapons program and will not develop such in the future. In parallel, the United States is strengthening containment mostly via a military presence in the Persian Gulf region and providing weapons and defense systems to U.S. allies in the Middle East. Scientists play vital roles both in improving methods of control via monitoring, safeguarding, and verifying Iran’s nuclear activities and in designing new military weapon systems for containment through the threat of force.

How much military force is enough to contain or deter? The scientists who believed in finite containment were generally reluctant, and even some were opposed, to advocating for more and more powerful weapons. As Gilpin examines in his book, the first major schism among the scientists was during the internal government debate in 1949 and 1950 about whether to develop the hydrogen bomb. In particular, the finite containment scientists on the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission assessed that “an American decision not to construct the hydrogen bomb would again symbolize the sincerity of America’s desire to end the atomic arms race.”

In contrast, the infinite containment school that included Edward Teller (who was instrumental in designing the hydrogen bomb), and Ernest Lawrence (who was a scientific leader during the Manhattan Project and was based at the University of California, Berkeley), “argued that control over nuclear weapons would only be possible in a completely open world such as that envisioned in the Baruch Plan. Under the conditions of modern science, the arms race would therefore be unavoidable until the political differences underlying that arms race were settled” in the words of Gilpin. Many of the infinite containment scientists were the strongest advocates for declassifying nuclear secrets as long as there were firm assurances that nations had joined together to prevent the use of nuclear energy for military purposes or that “peace-loving nations had a sufficient arsenal of atomic weapons [to] destroy the will of aggressive nations to wage war.” In effect, they were arguing for world government or for a coalition of allied nations to enforce world peace.

Readers will be reminded of many instances in which history has repeated itself as mirrored by the control, finite containment, and infinite containment ways of thought arising from the atomic scientists’ movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Despite the disagreements among these “schools,” a common belief is that the scientists “knew that technical breakthroughs rarely come unless one is looking for them and that if the best minds of the country were brought in to concentrate on the problem, someone would find a solution … if there were one to be found,” according to Gilpin. Gilpin also astutely recommended that “wisdom flourishes best and error is avoided most effectively in an atmosphere of intellectual give and take where scientists of opposed political persuasions are pitted against one another.” Finally, he uncovered a most effective technique for “bring[ing] about the integration of the technical and policy aspects of policy” through “the contracted study project … wherein experts from both inside and outside of the government meet together over a period of months to fashion policy suggestions in a broad area of national concern.”

This, in effect, is the new operational model for much of FAS’s work. We are forming study groups and task forces that include diverse groups of technical and policy experts from both inside and outside the government. Stay tuned to reports from FAS as these groups tackle urgent and important science-based national security problems.


Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

President, Federation of American Scientists

After Action Report – Second PfPC Working Group Workshop on Emerging Security Challenges

Earlier today, the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes released its After Action Report to experts who participated in the Emerging Security Challenges Working Group Workshop #2. The PfPC has given permission to the Federation of American Scientists to publicly release these findings.


Lessons Identified / Policy Recommendations

Societies need critical knowledge in advance of technological or scientific changes that may affect security and the state, and yet, few efforts exist to satisfy this need.

Technological change is faster than educational and legal change: Military, defense and policy makers at all levels broadly need education in technology literacy, risk recognition and mitigation.

Emerging Security Challenges (ESC) educational products for policy and military leaders should bring together a mix of practitioners of science and technology and experts from history and the social sciences.


Unanimous acceptance of need for military and defense curriculum and training in the field of emerging security challenges.

Leadership from Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine and Poland promised to seek to establish centers of excellence or hire talent in the field of emerging security challenges.

Acceptance that definitional debates are important but must be by-passed in order to facilitate partnership educational mission in ESC; group trust has been generated sufficient to make that possible.

Three publication products planned, two for summer 2013 delivery.

Planning underway for next two workshops and support for Senior Executive Seminar at the Marshall Center.


Government systematically underestimates the potential disruption made possible by technology and scientific advances. Policy makers not only need concrete information and recommendations from which to operate, they also need to decrease stove-piping of issues – a holistic approach to emerging technologies will help.

With emerging technologies and their associated capabilities, new and disruptive capabilities can readily fall into the hands of adversaries or ill-willed individuals. Ubiquitous advances and cost reductions in computing, navigation and hobbyist technologies are apt to reduce barriers to remote and other forms of warfare. Policy makers need to have an increased awareness of the dual-role of emerging technologies and their unintended consequences and possible threat to national and international security.

Alliance risks include force interoperability when a technological leader pursues radical change while domestic political tolerance and blowback for such new technologies encourage further stress and ambiguity in relations.

Projected US defense spending and cuts in Alliance defense budgets are likely to result in new challenges for NATO, particularly as increased high technology defense developments could alter the balance between partners’ capabilities, budgetary plans, and interoperability.

As warfare is outsourced to only those who are “near peers” in technology and societal views shift, decreasing political tolerance for alliance security efforts may stress alliance unity. Support for the traditional transatlantic compact (European political support in return for US military guarantees) may be seen to run counter to individual ‘social contracts’ within the alliance member states.

Policy makers need to be aware of the risks for societal disruption via technologies. Technologies regularly have two sides. For example, information technologies can easily create crowds and amplify social unrest (i.e. Arab Spring lessons via social media networks), yet they are not as useful for controlling the results – the demonstrations, violent protests, etc. Another example can be demonstrated with an everyday use device: Smart Phones. Low price navigation in smart phones is helpful to people and commercial interests, yet these phones have everything needed to acquire and navigate to potential targets.

Military and defense education products are sorely needed at present to extend understanding into risks and opportunities in ESC.

58 Nobel Laureates Urge Congress to Halt Budget Cuts to Science Research

A group of 58 U.S. Nobel Laureates is urging members of Congress to preserve federal funding of long term scientific research for the 2014 fiscal year budget. Today, President Obama released the FY2014 budget, which is sent to Congress for approval and allocation.  With sequestration cuts to agencies which support scientific research and development including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the United States is at risk of falling behind other countries in the development of science and technology.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released the letter which was written by Dr. Burton Richter, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics, and signed by 58 U.S. Nobel Laureates, many of whom serve on FAS’s Board of Sponsors. Dr. Richter writes that “there is a bipartisan agreement on the importance of federal funding of long-term scientific research. The agreement exists because of recognition that this sort of research fuels the innovation engine that is essential to our economy. The entire federal research, development and demonstration enterprise amounts today to about one percent of our Gross Domestic Product and has steadily fallen over the years, while our rivals in Europe and Asia invest more.”

Dr. Richter underscores the importance of long-term scientific funding for future generations, stating that, “we Nobel Laureates are likely to do well in competition for a reduced level of funding. Our concern is for the younger generation who will be behind the innovations and earn the Prizes of the future.”

“The United States has far surpassed other nations in Nobel Prize winners in the sciences. The ability to foster such talent will be undermined with continued erosion of federal support,” said FAS President Charles D. Ferguson. “FAS is proud to circulate this letter on behalf of Dr. Richter and the Nobel Laureates to raise awareness of potential budget cuts to the United States science industry and future generations of scientists.”

Read the article in the New York Times regarding the letter here.

Click here for the PDF version of the letter or see full text below.

April 9, 2013

Dear Members of Congress:

With the delivery of the President’s budget on April 10, Congress will begin the process of allocating funds to all the areas in the Federal Budget. One of those areas is long-term research and development in the agencies that fund the backbone of the U.S. scientific enterprise: National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology as well as parts of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Defense. There is a bipartisan agreement on the importance of federal funding of long-term scientific research. The President emphasized it in his State of the Union speech and Majority Leader Cantor emphasized it in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute. The agreement exists because of recognition that this sort of research fuels the innovation engine that is essential to our economy. The entire federal research, development and demonstration enterprise amounts today to about one percent of our Gross Domestic Product and has steadily fallen over the years, while our rivals in Europe and Asia invest more.

We Nobel Laureates are likely to do well in competition for a reduced level of funding. Our concern is for the younger generation who will be behind the innovations and earn the Prizes of the future. We urge you, even in these financially troubled times, to keep the budgets of the agencies that support science at a level that will keep the pipelines full of the younger generation upon whom our economic vitality will rest in future years.


Dr. Burton Richter

Stanford Linear Accelerator Center

1976 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Peter Agre

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Sidney Altman

Yale University

1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Kenneth J. Arrow

Stanford University

1972 Nobel Prize in economic science

Dr. David Baltimore

California Institute of Technology

1975 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Bruce Beutler

UT Southwestern Medical Center

2011 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. J. Michael Bishop

University of California, San Francisco

1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Gunter Blobel

The Rockefeller University

1999 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Michael Brown

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

1985 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Thomas Cech

University of Colorado Boulder

1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Martin Chalfie

Columbia University

2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Stanley Cohen

Vanderbilt University

1986 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Leon N. Cooper

Brown University

1972 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. James W. Cronin

Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics

1980 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Robert Curl Jr.

Rice University

1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Johann Deisenhofer

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Andrew Fire

Stanford University School of Medicine

2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Jerome Friedman


1990 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Walter Gilbert

Harvard University Professor Emeritus

1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Sheldon Lee Glashow

Harvard University

1979 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Roy Glauber

Harvard University

2006 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Carol Greider

Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. David J. Gross

University of California, Santa Barbara

2004 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Roger Guillemin

Salk Institute

1977 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. John L. Hall

University of Colorado

2005 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Leland Hartwell

Center for Sustainable Health, Arizona State University

2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Dudley R. Herschbach

Harvard University

1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Roald Hoffmann

Cornell University

1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Louis J. Ignarro

UCLA School of Medicine

1998 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Wolfgang Ketterle


2001 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Brian Kobilka

Stanford University School of Medicine

2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Walter Kohn

University of California, Santa Barbara

1998 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Roger Kornberg

Stanford University School of Medicine

2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Leon Lederman

University of Chicago

1988 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz

Duke University Medical Center

2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Eric Maskin

Harvard University

2007 Nobel Prize in economic science

Dr. John Mather

University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

2006 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Craig Mello

University of Massachusetts Medical School

2006 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Mario Molina

University of California San Diego

1985 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Dr. Ferid Murad

George Washington University

1998 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Douglas Osheroff

Stanford University

1996 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Martin Perl

Stanford Linear Accelerator Center

1995 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Saul Perlmutter

University of California, Berkley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

2011 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. William Phillips

Joint Quantum Institute

1997 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. David Politzer


2004 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Adam Riess

Johns Hopkins University

2011 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Richard Roberts

New England Biolabs

1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Brian P. Schmidt

The Australian National University

2011 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Phillip Sharp

Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research

1993 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Hamilton Smith

J. Craig Venter Institute

1978 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. George F. Smoot

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

2006 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Thomas Steitz

Yale University

2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Dr. Steven Weinberg

University of Texas at Austin

1979 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Carl E. Wieman

University of British Columbia

2001 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Eric Wieschaus

Princeton University

1995 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Torsten Wiesel

Rockefeller University

1981 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

Dr. Frank Wilczek

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

2004 Nobel Prize in physics

Dr. Robert W. Wilson

Bell Laboratories

1978 Nobel Prize in physics

Trimming Nuclear Excess

Co-Authored by Meggaen Neely, Communications Intern at the Federation of American Scientists

The U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals currently stand at more than 15 times the size of the total nuclear arsenals of all seven other nuclear weapons states combined. In a new report released by FAS, Trimming Nuclear Excess Options for Further Reductions of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Forces, Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS, argues that the U.S. and Russian nuclear arms reduction process needs to be revitalized by new treaties and unilateral initiatives to reduce nuclear force levels.

At a briefing  held on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on December 14, 2012 Steve Pifer, Director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution, and Joe Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, joined Kristensen in a discussion regarding U.S.-Russian nuclear dialogue.

While Kristensen noted the significant reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, he emphasized the need for further reductions, and expressed concerns at the growing impression  that  the U..S and Russia have shifted their focus to modernizing their nuclear forces and are investing in new nuclear weapon systems. Kristensen suggested that, “unless new unilateral reductions take place or significant arms control agreements are reached; large nuclear forces could be retained far into the future.”

While he alluded to the important role the New START Treaty has played in recent years, he also implied that the effect it has had on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces has remained limited, stating that, “the treaty only regulates a limited (but important) portion of the total forces, it has no direct effect on the number of nuclear warheads the two countries possess, and it does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead.” Kristensen called upon the U.S. and Russia to revitalize the treaty through new treaties and unilateral initiatives by finding a better balance between modernization plans and their stated commitment towards nuclear disarmament.

Such action would comprise of the implementation of force reductions planned under the New START Treaty as soon as possible. Kristensen placed particular emphasis on the necessity in reducing the missile loading on each Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and reducing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). He suggested that this was a necessary action in order to decrease the current asymmetry between U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. U.S. nuclear forces have placed particular emphasis on “many delivery vehicles each with fewer warheads” while Russian nuclear forces have been characterized “by fewer delivery vehicles each carrying more warheads.” There are concerns that such asymmetry could lead to mistrust between the two countries and “drive worst-case planning and unnecessarily dynamic posturing that will complicate efforts to reduce nuclear weapons further.”

Pifer reaffirmed the need for bilateral action suggesting that the Obama administration “should pursue a New START II that would cut deployed strategic weapons from the New START level of 1,550 warheads apiece to 1,000.” Pifer placed less emphasis on unilateral reductions than Kristensen. Kristensen suggested that implementation of a new treaty that addresses non-deployed and non-strategic weapons will take a significant period of time to negotiate and that some unilateral reductions could help to reduce concerns about asymmetry and stability in the interim.

The full report can be read here.

Nuclear Arms Control Opportunities: An Agenda for Obama’s Second Term by Steven Pifer and Michael O’ Hanlon can be read here.

Challenges to Creating a WMD Free Zone

With the current tensions in the Middle East, regional instability, ongoing debate about the nature and intent of Iran’s nuclear program, and the recent postponement of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone conference, a Middle East WMD-free zone seems little more than a pipe dream. The conference was postponed in 2012 as a result of the “poor geopolitical climate.”[i] It is unclear whether it will be rescheduled or cancelled altogether with the U.S. State Department suggesting they will “continue to work seriously…to create conditions for a meaningful conference.”[ii]

In a timely briefing on the Challenges to Creating a Middle East WMD-Free Zone co-hosted by the Nonproliferation Review and the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs experts stressed the importance of creating open dialogue in the region in order to lay the foundation towards a Middle East WMD-free zone.

The discussion at the event was led by Douglas B. Shaw, Associate Dean for Planning, Research, and External Relations, George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs, and Emily B. Landau, Senior Research Associate, Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.

Shaw and Landau were part of a group of experts that contributed to the Nonproliferation Special Report on Creating a Middle East WMD-Free Zone, which began with a joint conference organized between the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, in 2011. The group was formed to discuss the challenges faced by the upcoming conference on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone which was proposed by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 2010.

Both Shaw and Landau emphasized that the current instability in the region suggests that a Middle East WMD-free zone is unlikely in the near future. However they also stressed the importance of encouraging regional cooperation and reflected on past efforts in order to pave the way for a peaceful Middle East.

While Shaw noted that there are challenges when creating a nuclear weapon free zone he also emphasized their “imaginative” approach as a form of defense, suggesting that these zones could have the ability to reassure the security of non-nuclear weapon states. Currently there are 5 nuclear weapon free zones in Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia that prohibit the use, development, or deployment of nuclear weapons within defined geographical spaces.

In response to arguments that “zones only take place where dogs aren’t barking,” Shaw noted that some countries that currently participate in nuclear free zones gave up clandestine nuclear weapon programs prior to the entry-into-force of these zones. For example South Africa was required to dismantle its nuclear weapon capability prior to joining the Pelindaba Treaty which was opened for signature on April 12, 1996. Landau reiterated the importance of encouraging engagement and dialogue in the Middle East as she reflected on the successes and limitations of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) group between 1992 and 1994. As the only regional arms control talks that have taken place in the Middle East to date, they are a significant reference point for the recently postponed Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone Conference that was to take place in Helsinki in late 2012.

The ACRS process concentrated on confidence building in the short term with long terms goals of addressing problems regarding WMD faced by the Middle East. It helped to improve the nature of regional tensions and reassured states of the intentions of others in a step by step manner. While the ACRS process made some positive steps towards regional cooperation the ACRS multilateral talks were put on hold indefinably in 1995, “due to complications in the peace process and the ongoing disagreement between Israel and Egypt over the question of when to place a discussion of WMD-free zone on the agenda.”[iii]

Landau suggested that this reflected the gap between the goals of the global non-proliferation regime and that of the regional effort towards non-proliferation. While she suggested regional efforts were collaborative and incremental, focused on creating good will between countries, the global efforts are more focused on immediate non-proliferation and neglect cooperation between countries.

While the ACRS was hindered by differing perspectives on arms control, lessons can be taken from them. Landau suggested that the main lesson is that the key to success of such discussions is to find a common interest for regional bodies. Unfortunately when posed with the question what are potential current points of common interest in the Middle East, she could not enumerate any. However, one could argue that there is potential for Middle East collaboration on interests both directly and indirectly related to national security among countries in the region including issues such as water, energy and environment. With current talks at a standstill, it is evident that more steps need to be taken to approach the idea of a Middle East WMD free zone, as many issues still need to be resolved.

[i] http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/mideast-wmd-summit-canceled-diplomats/

[ii] http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/11/200987.htm

[iii] http://cns.miis.edu/inventory/pdfs/acrs.pdf

U.S.-Led Actions in Iran in Dollars and Cents


As tensions in the Middle East have grown, many have considered the impacts of U.S.-led actions against Iran. Yet, the focus remains on the damage to Iranian military and nuclear infrastructures. Mr. Charles Blair, Senior Fellow on the State and Non-State Threats at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the study’s director, and Mr. Mark Jansson, Special Projects Director at FAS, tackle a different question: how might U.S.-led action against Iran impact the global economy? FAS released a new report, Sanctions, Military Strikes, and Other Potential Actions Against Iran, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC on November 16, 2012. The full report can be read here.

Experts participating at the report release include elicitation participant Dr. James Bartis, Senior Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation, Mr. Gary Ackerman, Director for Special Projects at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), and Dr. David Jhirad, Director of the Energy, Resources, and Environment Program at SAIS.

The report is the culmination of an elicitation conducted at FAS, which involved a bipartisan group of experts in areas of national security, economics, energy markets, and financial markets. Elicitations are useful tools in situations “characterized by high levels of uncertainty and change, where there is an absence of sufficient empirical data.” Hence, the elicitation’s focus on Iran, a situation with no precedents in U.S. foreign policy, constant change in the political and economic climates, and uncertainty of how future actions could affect the situation.

Mr. Blair explained how the goal of this report is to start a conversation on a previously-unstudied question, which is odd given its importance in determining how the U.S. should proceed in Iran. Elicitation participants were given six scenarios to assess in terms of costs to the global economy (in U.S. dollars). These costs were limited to a 3-month period, a quarter for financial markets. This time frame is arbitrary though reasonable given the great uncertainty surrounding the situation in Iran. The six scenarios were:

  1. Increasing pressure with sanctions on Iran
  2. A blockade in the Persian Gulf
  3. Surgical strikes in Iran, attacking only nuclear infrastructure
  4. A comprehensive bombing campaign in Iran, attacking both military and nuclear infrastructure
  5. A full-scale invasion of Iran
  6. Unilateral good faith actions on the part of the U.S.

Mr. Jansson explained how compounded uncertainty accounts for the range in costs seen in each scenario. The elicitation participants described variables that would determine the costs. For example, in scenario one, the cost of increasing sanctions would reflect the impact on financial market losses, an increase in oil prices, and the costs of complying with the sanctions. The participants pointed to over 70 variables throughout the elicitation, indicating the enormous uncertainty of the U.S. taking action in Iran in terms of economic effects. With the full-scale invasion, the report estimated global economic costs equaling one trillion seven hundred billion dollars. That’s a lot of zeros.

Dr. Bartis remarked on his surprise at the great losses to the financial market. He mentioned that those with expertise in finance “pushed for the higher numbers” in assessing the cost in each scenario.

Interestingly, the report estimates a $60 billion benefit for scenario six, where the U.S. concedes by suspending sanctions and removing an air craft carrier from the Persian Gulf. Variables that were considered include a drop in oil prices and an increase in regional investments. However, the report indicates the participants’ skepticism that the U.S. will take these actions.

When “putting a price on war with Iran,” it seems the lesson is to proceed with enormous caution.

This report noted the great uncertainty when determining the global economic effects of potential U.S. actions against Iran. The authors explained that this report is an essential first step in beginning the conversation on potential policy decisions in Iran. The panelists concluded with hopes that others will build upon this report.

Co-authored by Stephanie Lee, Development Intern at the Federation of American Scientists

A Lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fifty Years Later

Courtesy of Monica Amarelo, FAS Director of Communications

Fifty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, many assume that we have moved away from the prospect of a nuclear war. But that’s not the case, claims Dr. Martin Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University and a nuclear security expert. On October 18, 2012, at a briefing hosted by the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, DC, Hellman discussed his paper, “Fifty Years After the Cuban Missile Crisis: Time to Stop Bluffing at Nuclear Poker,” which was published by FAS and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Hellman argued that the U.S. took considerable risks during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and we continue to learn how close those risks brought us to a nuclear war.  On October 27, 1962, U.S. destroyers forced a Soviet submarine to surface near the quarantine line. Now, we know that the submarine carried a nuclear torpedo. Also, the U.S. considered invading Cuba. Yet, decision makers did not know that the Soviet Union had placed battlefield nuclear weapons in Cuba to deter, among other things, an invasion. What we should have learned, said Hellman citing Robert Kennedy, is “the importance of placing ourselves in another person’s shoes.”

However, the record shows that we have not followed this lesson. Hellman argued that the U.S. has not thought through certain foreign policy decisions with regard to America’s stated top priority: nonproliferation.

On December 26, 1979, one day after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that Afghanistan resistance included Pakistan’s exemption from America’s nonproliferation policy. Shortly thereafter, Pakistan developed a nuclear weapons capability. In 2003, President George H. W. Bush promised former Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi an “open path” to relations with the U.S. in exchange for giving up Libya’s weapons of mass destruction. During the Obama administration, NATO and the U.S. overthrew Gaddafi. Hellman argued that this sent a signal to North Korea that it made the right decision to maintain its nuclear program. Examples such as these, Hellman stated, indicate that the U.S. did not learn the lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some policymakers have shifted focus to missile defense. Hellman pointed out that this, too, must follow Kennedy’s lesson.

Hellman stated that the missile defense system in Eastern Europe bears an uncanny resemblance to the set-up in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F. Kennedy had placed nuclear-armed American missiles in Turkey in the spring of 1962. If we had taken Russia’s perspective into account, Hellman argued, we would have realized that it made sense for Russia to “hop the line” and stick missiles in Cuba. In the end, it didn’t matter if it was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from Russia or a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) from Cuba.

Today, do our Eastern European allies unnecessarily provoke Russia while sitting beneath the U.S. defense umbrella? Hellman recommended that the U.S. “warn allies that our security agreements don’t cover them if they poke the Russian bear.” The same situation, Hellman explained, applies to the “Chinese dragon” and the Senkaku Islands. Hellman asked if the U.S. wanted to risk our homeland’s existence over these islands.

The problem, he argued, is that the United States has unquestioned conventional superiority. China and Russia don’t have the conventional forces to win a war with the U.S., and to save face, the conflict will likely escalate to include nuclear weapons. “Any war with China or Russia runs an unacceptably high risk of going nuclear,” said Hellman.

The conventional wisdom is that nuclear deterrence works. But, what happens if it doesn’t? Hellman said that, “If it doesn’t work perfectly, then it fails, and we’re dead. Can it work perfectly forever? That doesn’t seem reasonable.” At best, Hellman predicted that nuclear deterrence will work for only 1000 years.

Hellman reached this limit through a preliminary study using quantitative risk analysis. He called for Congress to fund a study to use quantitative risk analysis on the possibilities for failures in nuclear deterrence. The goal is to bring greater objectivity and move beyond the current debate. Risk analysis recommends an end state, Hellman explained, and he proposed that the end state be a “state of acceptable risk.” What is acceptable risk? That’s the first question to be answered by this research group.

This end state might not be the goal known as “Global Zero.” Hellman argued that we do not know if we can reach Global Zero, but it seems sensible to keep it as “the vision.” Then, we can see what options are available.

On this issue of nuclear policy, Hellman remarked that there is “bipartisan idiocy and bipartisan sanity.” However, both sides have a vested interest in making sure a nuclear weapon is not launched against the United States. Progress on this issue requires only “a couple of representatives to get this into an appropriations bill,” not a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Today, U.S. policy on deterrence is to appear “irrational and vindictive” regarding threats to our interests. Hellman stated that this was a dangerous policy, especially when it involves nuclear weapons. One product of a study using quantitative risk analysis would be to rethink America’s nuclear force posture with, hopefully Hellman added, less reliance on the first use of nuclear weapons.