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China’s Counterproductive Response on New START

May 6th, 2019: The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismisses the possibility of entering into strategic arms limitation talks with the United States and Russia

Last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Trump administration wanted China to participate in discussions on extending the New START Treaty, which places limits on the size of the nuclear arsenals of the countries who sign it. The current treaty, which expires in 2020, is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia. Pompeo said the administration wants to broaden participation in the treaty to include China.

When asked at a recent press conference, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said his government “will not participate in any negotiation for a trilateral nuclear disarmament agreement.” That’s unfortunate. It’s also counterproductive. China lost an opportunity to educate Americans, and the rest of the world, about its comparatively reserved nuclear weapons policies. It lost an opportunity to be an international leader on nuclear disarmament and to achieve numerical parity with the United States and Russia. And, if the ministry’s own assumptions about the disingenuous motives of Trump administration officials are correct, it may have helped Trump pin the blame for failed negotiations between Russia and the United States on China.

Silence is Acquiescence

Most Americans don’t think about nuclear weapons very much. They don’t know how many weapons each nation has or understand the policies governing their use. So when Trump administration officials claim the United States lags far behind China in modernizing its nuclear arsenal most Americans are not inclined to doubt. Without public inquiry or objection, those claims will form the basis of Congressional decisions to approve spending trillions to modernize the US nuclear arsenal so America can catch up with China.

In fact, China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950. None of its nuclear weapons are kept on high alert. Its nuclear-armed submarines never go on armed patrol. China is working diligently to improve the quality and increase the quantity of its nuclear forces, but at the present pace of those efforts, even if the United States does nothing, China’s nuclear forces will continue to lag far behind those of the United States for many decades.

Geng Shuang, the Chinese spokesperson who made the announcement, mentioned that China’s arsenal is “kept at the minimum level required by national security” and is “an order of magnitude” smaller than the US arsenal. But saying it once at a press conference in response to a question is a veritable whisper in the cacophony of information coming at US voters in this age of social media. Deciding to engage the United States in New START discussions would be surprising, make headlines, generate endless commentary and flood the United States with better information on China’s nuclear forces.

The Chinese government constantly complains about American attempts to hype “the China threat” to the United States. Yet presented with a golden opportunity to dispel at least some of the hype, all the ministry could muster was a few diffident lines at a press conference. All that Congress and the American public will hear is that “China said no.”

Chairman Xi Fails to Lead

That China said “no” to nuclear disarmament negotiations is most likely all the rest of the world will hear and remember as well.

China may be worried that accepting Pompeo’s offer could trap China in a difficult situation. That’s understandable, especially given the relatively strict verification requirements in the existing treaty. But Pompeo may have presented the current Chinese leader with a diplomatic no-lose scenario if he said yes. Had Chairman Xi agreed to engage the United States on the possibility of Chinese participation in New START it would have put the onus on President Trump to respond. Xi could have welcomed the opportunity to have the United States reduce its nuclear forces to a level where China could be an equal party to the treaty. If Trump demurred he would take the blame for China’s absence from negotiations. If Trump said yes the United States would have to reduce the size of its nuclear forces by an order of magnitude. Either way Xi wins. The only way he could lose was to say no, yet that’s what he did.

Geng Shuang told the press, “China stands consistently for the comprehensive prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” Claims like this from all the nuclear weapons states ring hollow to the vastly greater number of non-nuclear weapons states, which have been waiting for 49 years for China, the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia to honor their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to “pursue negotiations in good faith … on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Pompeo’s offer to engage the United States on deep nuclear reductions was a test, intended or not, of China’s commitment to the NPT. Xi failed that test.

The non-nuclear weapons states have good reason to doubt China’s sincerity. Like the United States, China signed but did not ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). However inexcusable, the United States Senate rejected ratification shortly after the US signed the treaty in 1996 and a majority of senators remain opposed. China didn’t have that problem then, and it’s even less of a problem under Xi’s leadership. He could direct China’s National People’s Congress to ratify it tomorrow. He could also be more proactive in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD). China has a highly capable community of arms control experts, many with considerable scientific and technical expertise, who can support a more proactive Chinese stance on nuclear disarmament. Yet Xi seems happy to let things lie. His failure to respond positively to the opening Pompeo presented is a sign that China is content with a status quo where the world remains divided into nuclear haves and have-nots.

This was also a test of Xi’s common sense. Any imaginable negotiating scenario that resulted in a significant reduction of US nuclear forces is in China’s national security interest. A smaller US nuclear force makes it less likely the United States might try to launch a disarming nuclear first strike against China’s small nuclear force – the very scenario China’s nuclear modernization efforts are supposedly intended to address. Engaging in nuclear arms control negotiations with an adversary you believe may not be acting in earnest is a risk, but it’s one a China committed to “the comprehensive prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons” should be willing to take.

Sucker Punched

Finally, Geng Shuang said Pompeo’s offer was an “attempt to make an issue out of China on arms control.” What he meant was that the offer to negotiate wasn’t sincere. He may be right. There’s no evidence the United States approached China about New START either before or after Pompeo’s testimony, just like there’s no evidence the US spoke with China about joining the INF treaty. China’s assumption, and the assumption of most of my colleagues in the Chinese and US arms control communities, is that the Trump administration is setting China up to take the blame for the eventual collapse of the New START agreement, just like it did with the INF Treaty.

Arms control proponents in the United States are urging the Trump administration to go forward without including China because “to include limits on China would be complicated and take many years.” They also say that getting China to agree to New START’s strict verification measures “will require long periods of talks and confidence building measures.” But like the Foreign Ministry’s complaint about making China the issue,  these statements only encourage average Americans and their elective representatives to agree that China is a problem, that China isn’t ready or willing to disarm, so why should the United States. If Pompeo’s offer really was made in bad faith, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and the US arms control advocates urging Trump to forget about China, couldn’t have found better ways to help him get away with it.  

NNSA’s FY20 Budget Request: Full Speed Ahead on Weapons Development and Production

In March the Department of Energy released its FY20 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for developing, producing and maintaining US nuclear warheads and bombs.

(Source: Flickr)

The request outlines NNSA’s planned activities through FY24, including for weapons that have been part of the plan since the Obama administration such as:

  • The life extension program (LEP) for the W80-4 warhead, which will be used with the new air-launched cruise missile—the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO)
  • Producing W87-1 warheads to replace the W78 warheads on US land-based missiles

The costs of these programs are growing as they move forward with development and, as expected, have led to a substantial increase in the FY20 budget request for Weapons Activities. This category jumped almost 12%, to $12.4 billion, from $11.1 billion in FY19.

Although the Trump administration plans to add two new warheads to the arsenal—the W76-2 “low-yield” Trident warhead and an as-yet unnamed warhead for a planned new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM)—their impact on the FY20 budget is very small. This is because the W76-2, which is nearly complete, requires only a relatively minor modification to existing W76 warheads, and the SLCM is still in the earliest stage of development, receiving only minimal funding for studies.

Big increase: W80-4 warhead for new air-launched cruise missile

The largest funding increase is for the life extension program for the W80-4 warhead that will be used with the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), which is planned to replace the current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The NNSA has requested almost $900 million for the program in FY20—more than $240 million over last year’s funding of $655 million, a jump of more than 35 percent. This is on top of another large increase last year to speed the program up so that it was keeping pace with the schedule for the LRSO.

As we have previously detailed, the LRSO is an unnecessary and destabilizing weapon. It is expected to be significantly more capable than the existing ALCM, featuring enhanced accuracy, longer range, and greater speed; it will also be harder to detect. Like the W76-2 low-yield warhead discussed below, the supposed advantages of the LRSO lean more toward nuclear warfighting than deterrence.

Last year’s budget predicted that the NNSA would need only $714 million for the program in FY20. The program completed a required Weapon Design and Cost Report in December 2018 that reportedly provided data that led to the increase. In March, the Nuclear Weapons Council (a joint Department of Defense and Department of Energy group that oversees plans for nuclear weapons programs) approved the program to move into its next stage, Development Engineering. Costs for this program have increased substantially over time, and as it moves further along its development trajectory the budget will only continue to increase.

Another big increase: the W87-1 warhead for land-based missiles

Another recipient of substantially increased funds in the FY20 budget request is the replacement for the W78 warhead deployed on Minuteman III intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The planned replacement will be a modified version of the W87 warhead already deployed on ICBMs—dubbed the W87-1. Its FY20 budget comes in at $112 million—more than double last year’s funding of $53 million. This warhead is slated to be fielded on the “Ground-based Strategic Deterrent” missiles which are to replace the current Minuteman missiles beginning in 2029. The warhead was previously planned as the first of three interoperable warheads (IWs) to be used on both land- and submarine-based missiles.

The IW-1 warhead was intended to replace both the W78 and half of the Navy’s W88 warheads. But the program was not supported by the Navy and experts (including my colleague Lisbeth Gronlund) raised serious questions about its high cost, increased risk, and limited benefits, leading to its eventual death. The NNSA’s FY2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, released last fall, finally dropped the IW designations altogether in favor of “W78 replacement warhead” (now the W87-1), “ballistic missile warhead Y” (BM-Y, formerly IW2), and “ballistic missile warhead Z” (BM-Z, formerly IW3).

Coming in under cap: Weapons Dismantlement and Disposition

Funding for Weapons Dismantlement and Disposition is capped at $56 million per year until FY21 due to provisions in the FY17 and FY18 National Defense Authorization Acts. This was a result of opposition by the Republican-led Congress to the Obama administration’s announcement at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference that it planned to accelerate weapons dismantlement, in part to help demonstrate US commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament. In its first year, the cap resulted in a cut of almost 20% to President Obama’s request, effectively undercutting the plan.

For FY20, the NNSA has requested $47.5 million for Weapons Dismantlement and Disposition, $8.5 million less than the $56 million the category received in FY18 and FY19. Last year’s budget request indicated that the NNSA planned to continue requesting the full amount through FY23, the last future year included. The NNSA says that the decrease this year is because of a “reduction in legacy component disposition and CSA activities.”

The FY20 budget request, like the FY19 budget request, also does not reiterate the goal of dismantling all weapons retired before FY09 by FY22, which was set out in previous budget documents. Dismantlement competes for space and personnel with weapons production programs, so it seems likely that adding on to and speeding up the production schedule will keep dismantlement as an also-ran for the upcoming crunch period for NNSA.

Delayed retirement: the B83 bomb

Also getting an increase over estimates in previous budgets is the B83 bomb which, with a yield of 1.2 megatons, is by far the most powerful weapon in the US arsenal. The B83 was previously scheduled to be retired after the new B61-12 entered service in the early 2020s, but the Trump administration has decided to keep it around for an undetermined period, confusingly characterized in some places in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as “at least until there is sufficient confidence in the B61-12 gravity bomb that will be available in 2020” and in other places as “until a suitable replacement is identified.” This means that it requires more funding for upkeep and increased surveillance activity to ensure it will remain usable.

According to Charles Verdon, NNSA’s Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, these measures will be sufficient to keep the B83 in the active stockpile for the next 5-7 years, but after that the bomb would need a full life extension program, and the NNSA does not yet have an estimate for how much that might cost. Chances are that the NNSA does not want to undertake such a program, given how many other life extension programs it already has on its plate.

It would also be costly and unnecessary. Recognition that the high yield of the B83 is not needed was part of the NNSA’s argument in favor of a major life extension program for the B61 bomb, which will produce a new variant, the B61-12. In response to questions from Congress about the need for the new bomb, when the B83 can already carry out some of the same missions for which it is designed, Air Force General Robert Kehler, at the time commander of US Strategic Command, characterized its “very high yield” as one of its “shortcomings.” The B61-12 will include a new guided tail kit that will significantly increase its accuracy, and more recent reports show that it will also have earth penetrating capability. These improvements will allow it to be used against a broader set of targets, even those which may previously have required higher yield.

New: Next ICBM Warhead, Sea-launched cruise missile

New in this year’s budget are the introduction of a line item for the “Next Strategic Missile Warhead Program” and funding for a study of President Trump’s proposed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

The warhead labeled BM-Y in the most recent Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan has apparently now been updated to the Next Strategic Missile Warhead (or possibly the Next Navy Warhead, as it is given different labels on different pages of the budget request). The Next Strategic Missile Warhead would eventually replace the W87 warhead on the Air Force’s planned Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles. Previous plans called for this to be the second of three planned interoperable warheads, to be designated IW2. In those plans, IW2 would also have replaced the remaining half of the Navy’s W88 warheads. The NNSA has not requested any funding for the Next Strategic Missile Warhead program in FY20, but indicates that it will begin to request funding in FY23 to conduct feasibility studies.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for the development of a new sea-launched cruise missile, after President Obama retired a previous version in 2010. The FY20 funding is for a study called an “analysis of alternatives,” one of the earliest steps in developing a new weapons program. It is unclear how much is being requested, but according to the Arms Control Association the number is, “as much as $12 million.”

Complete: The Life Extension Program for the W76 warhead

The NNSA’s budget request for the W76 LEP drops to zero in FY20, indicating that the program is now complete. The NNSA announced in January that it had completed the upgrade of all W76s to W76-1s in December of last year. The program began production of the life-extended warheads in 2008 to extend the life of the warheads by 20 years.

Nearly complete: The W76-2 warhead

The FY20 request includes $10 million for the W76-2, a variant of the 100-kiloton W76 warhead modified to have a lower yield of about 6.5 kilotons. The warhead, the most rapidly developing outcome of the Trump administration’s 2018 NPR, is intended to replace some of the existing W76 warheads and be carried on Trident missiles launched by US submarines.

The Trump administration claims that the United States needs this weapon to respond to what it believes are increased threats from Russia and others. But as we have detailed in our fact sheet on this program, this argument does not make sense. Despite what the Trump administration says, there is no “gap” in US deterrence capabilities– existing US nuclear weapons already cover a range of yields from 0.3 kiloton to 1.2 megatons. Moreover, the W76-2, like the LRSO, will add to US capabilities for nuclear warfighting, blurring the line between conventional and nuclear conflicts and increasing the chance that a nuclear weapon could be used.

The W76-2 program received $65 million in NNSA funding in FY19, plus another $23 million from the Department of Defense. The decrease in the FY20 request is because production of the modified warheads is scheduled to be completed by the end of FY19, leaving only minor close-out activities for FY20. The NNSA announced in late February that it had completed the first production unit of the W76-2 and was on track to complete the rest of the warheads and deliver them to the Navy by the end of FY19 in September. Thus, if Congress does not step in quickly, the United States will begin deploying a destabilizing new nuclear weapon in the very near future. Fortunately, Rep. Adam Smith, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has already announced he is “unalterably opposed” to the W76-2 and he will likely seek to end funding for the program and bar deployment of it. His effort has the support of more than 40 former senior officials who last year recommended that Congress cancel the program.

Donald Trump: Serious about Arms Control?

President Trump seems to understand a major lesson of the past 70 years of the nuclear age: Unconstrained arms races are dangerous and massively expensive.

The Washington Post reports that Trump “has ordered his administration to prepare a push for new arms-control agreements with Russia and China after bristling at the cost of a 21st-century nuclear arms race.” If one country builds more weapons to feel secure, this can cause other countries to feel less secure and lead them to build more weapons in response. This cycle is the classic arms race.

Trump seems to get it. In December he tweeted that he wants “a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race.”

Fortunately, the solution is known: verifiable arms control agreements. Rather than unconstrained action/reaction cycles, agreements increase transparency between countries, limit the growth of arsenals, and set up mechanisms to clarify ambiguities and possible violations.

And it works: The United States and Soviet Union learned this lesson in the 1970s and 1980s as those reaction cycles led them to collectively build more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. A series of arms control agreements have reduced those numbers today to about 1,700 deployed weapons on each side.

Gorbachev and Reagan signing the INF Treaty in 1987  (Source: National Archives)

What Trump Needs to Do

If Trump is serious about avoiding a nuclear arms race—and a nuclear war by extension—here is what he needs to do:

  • A clear first step is to extend the US-Russian New START Treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021 but can be extended for five years without new negotiations. Both countries have cut their nuclear arsenals to meet the treaty’s limits. The treaty has put in place an intrusive verification regime that the US military highly values. Extending this successful treaty will provide time to take next steps.
  • The administration says it wants to go beyond New START and limit other weapons. That makes sense. But the first step is for the United States not to pull out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which strictly limits weapons not covered by New START. After it was signed, the US and Soviet Union destroyed some 2,700 of these nuclear weapons. It is definitely “a bird in the hand” that is still useful as the United States and Russia work to address recent compliance issues.
  • Trump must understand that the US push for defenses against long-range missiles blocks progress on limiting those weapons. When it ratified the New START treaty, Russia said any future agreement must include limits on missile defenses. And when Putin announced several new nuclear weapons last year—including the drone nuclear submarine that the United States would like to stop—it was clear that these weapons are designed to defeat missile defenses

And keep in mind that the main US missile defense system has so far cost some $45 billion, yet continues to fail half of its tests. At the same time, it can be defeated by decoys and other countermeasures. The only thing it seems certain to stop is new arms control agreements. Trump must be serious about limits on defenses if he wants to limit offenses.

  • If Trump wants China to join an arms control treaty with the US and Russia he needs to be willing to think way outside the box. Both countries currently have more than 10 times as many nuclear warheads in their arsenals as does China. And China is concerned about a buildup of US missile defenses. Moreover, why would China agree to join if France and Britain, which have similarly sized arsenals, are not included? Finding incentives and a way to include China in a treaty will take some work.
  • Trump must also replace National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton has a long history of blocking arms control: He was behind US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and George W. Bush’s pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, among others. He has been blamed for undermining recent negotiations with North Korea.

Is Trump Serious?

Gorbachev and Reagan (Source: National Archives)Time will tell if Trump is serious. This could be a ploy to assuage the public’s growing concerns about instability and nuclear war. He may talk a good arms control game while pushing for agreements that go beyond what Russia and China are prepared to sign up to in the current climate.

But if Trump, like Reagan, understands the dangers and wastefulness of unfettered arms races, there is a lot he can do. After all, when he says “Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear, which is ridiculous,” he’s almost right. The price tag is actually trillions of dollars.

Hopes for Nuclear Disarmament from Tokyo

April 23, 2019: UN Undersecretary General Izumi Nakamitsu discusses disarmament at the United Nations University in Tokyo.

The so-called “great powers” are not so great when it comes to nuclear disarmament. Forty-nine years ago they entered into a legally binding commitment, known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to “pursue negotiations in good faith … on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” It’s hard to argue, though the great powers try to do so, that spending trillions to maintain and modernize their nuclear arsenals is an act of good faith.

Optimism in the face of that kind of hypocrisy can be hard to find, but it made an appearance this week on the campus of the United Nations University in Tokyo. Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, spoke convincingly to a conference room packed with concerned academics, students and activists about improving prospects for progress in nuclear disarmament.

International Norms Still Matter

One prerequisite for progress is a high level of commitment among UN member states to international law and organization. Nakamitsu said that although politicians from the United States and other nations are mobilizing nationalist resentments against the accelerating social and economic developments knitting the planet together, public officials in the rest of the world are responding with “a renewed commitment to multilateralism.” She emphasized, repeatedly, that the United Nations cannot force the nuclear weapons states to disarm. But it can help create the conditions for progress.

An important bellwether is the NPT itself.  The third meeting of the preparatory committee for the NPT review conference in 2020 is being held in New York. In advance of the meeting even President Trump, who revels in undermining the United Nations, is talking about the need for nuclear arms control. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened the door to deep nuclear cuts by suggesting that the United States and Russia should join China, which has a small nuclear arsenal of several hundred weapons that it keeps off alert, in the negotiation of a new strategic arms limitation treaty. Despite these public statements–and time will tell if they are sincere–the Trump administration is asking Congress for new funds to rapidly modernize and expand the US nuclear arsenal. It also refused to endorse President Reagan’s statement that “A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.” But even Trump and his assemblage of nuclear hawks feel the need to at least pretend, at a moment when the world is gathering to sure up the NPT, that international nuclear arms control is a solemn US obligation.

Looking Forward

Nakamitsu was enthusiastic about the new UN Agenda for Disarmament launched by UN Secretary General António Guterres last May. She reminded her audience the very first UN General Assembly resolution established the international community’s right and responsibility to “enquire into” and “make recommendations” that would lead to “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.” She said one of the most exciting initiatives on the agenda is to engage new constituencies that can support the United Nations in the fulfillment of that mandate.

The most consequential may be the global scientific community, which is much larger, more diverse and more capable than it was in 1946. Nakamitsu spends a lot of time with scientific groups all over the world and notes that many scientists never thought about nuclear disarmament, much less how they might participate in the process. At first blush that may seem discouraging but it is actually a cause for hope. The global discussion of nuclear disarmament is currently dominated by a small clique of experts closely associated with the nuclear weapons states. Expanding that discussion to include more diverse and scientifically competent voices is a task ideally suited for the United Nations. Nakamitsu’s outreach is already leading to some interesting conversations.

For example, she recalled a meeting with IT engineers at a major global corporation where she sought advice on the potential impact of artificial intelligence on nuclear weapons command and control systems. The discussion started with a recitation of familiar concerns about machines deciding to launch nuclear weapons with no human oversight. But it ended with the speculation that it might be possible to encode all modern weapons systems with an algorithm that allowed the machines to understand, interpret and apply international humanitarian law. As I sat there listening to the undersecretary I imagined a pilot about to launch a missile strike getting a warning stating, “System analytics have determined your action will result in the commission of a war crime. This incident will be recorded and filed with the United Nations War Crimes Commission.”

This is just one of the many thought-provoking encounters Nakamitsu experienced after the new agenda was launched. She believes they’re creating greater global interest in advancing nuclear disarmament.

Power to the People

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the undersecretary emphasized history suggests greater public engagement forces national decision-makers to pursue international nuclear arms control. She recalled the role of the Japanese women who helped ignite the worldwide public campaign that led to the signing of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space and under water.

The UN’s new disarmament agenda also calls for the unprecedented use of the offices and resources of the United Nations to reach out to women and other constituencies sidelined by the male-dominated conversations about nuclear disarmament that occur between officials and experts from the nuclear weapons states. Nakamitsu related her own efforts to engage much younger audiences, and patiently fielded questions from the students and educators who attended her presentation. She reminded the older members of the audience, like me, that while complete and total nuclear disbarment is unlikely to occur in our lifetimes, the hope for our future lies in engaging young people and arming them with the information they need to carry on the struggle.

Pompeo Opens the Door to Deep US Nuclear Cuts (Or Large Chinese Increases)

April 10, 2019: Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley questions Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about new nuclear arms control negotiations with China.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Trump administration wants China to join negotiations on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The treaty, which caps the number of deployed US and Russian nuclear warheads at 1550 each, is scheduled to expire in 2021.

China has a no first use policy and is believed to store its warheads separately from its missiles. Under the definition of the current treaty, China would therefore have zero deployed weapons.

It is difficult to believe Pompeo seriously considered the implications of Chinese participation in the New START treaty. If China were to become a party to the agreement, it would expect to be treated as an equal. There would need to be common limits on the number of warheads and launchers each country would be permitted to retain and deploy.

Making China subject to the same restrictions as the United States and Russia would present both countries with a very difficult choice. They would have to decide whether to reduce their numbers of deployed warheads to zero or to allow China to engage in a massive nuclear build up to match US and Russian numbers. They could agree to change the terms of the treaty to include both deployed and stored warheads, which would capture China’s warheads, but then it would also capture the additional 2,000-3,000 warheads that both the United States and Russia have in storage. US and Russian negotiators would then need to find a way to eliminate an even larger disparity in numbers between their countries and China.

A Quick Look at Those Numbers

China currently has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several hundred more. The United States has 4,000 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more. Current US estimates indicate China can deliver about 140 of those nuclear warheads to targets in the United States with its approximately 80 ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 60 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The United States could deliver as many as 800 nuclear warheads on its 400 ICBMs and a maximum of 1,920 warheads on its 240 SLBMs. The US arsenal also currently includes 452 nuclear gravity bombs and 528 nuclear-armed cruise missiles that are delivered by aircraft. China does not currently deploy any of its nuclear weapons on aircraft.

The current New START agreement caps the total of US and Russian deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons at 700. Assuming new negotiations produced a 50% reduction in those numbers—a result many nuclear arms control experts would justifiably herald as a stunning success for the Trump administration—China would be allowed to add several hundred ICBMs and SLBMs to its current arsenal

A significantly larger Chinese nuclear arsenal doesn’t sound like a very good outcome for the United States or its Asian allies.

So What was Pompeo Thinking?

One possibility is that the secretary thinks China’s nuclear arsenal is much larger than it actually is, perhaps due to misinformation circulated in Washington a few years ago.

Not long after Pompeo won his seat in Congress an adjunct professor at Georgetown University submitted a Pentagon-funded report suggesting China had approximately 3,000 nuclear weapons buried in a network of tunnels. The study received a favorable review from the Washington Post and gained some currency on Capitol Hill.

But the study was very poorly done. Its conclusions were based on spurious Chinese sources found by Georgetown undergraduate students using keyword searches of public Chinese websites. Their professor, Phillip Karber, misrepresented a collection of general questions about China’s nuclear arsenal posted on personal Chinese blogs as a secret Chinese military document stating China’s nuclear arsenal was ten times larger than current US estimates.

Peter Navarro, one of the leading voices on China within the Trump administration, cited Karber’s numbers in one of his books. He also claimed China’s leaders were so confident in the success of their nuclear modernization program that they were willing to start a nuclear war, a claim that appears to have influenced the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which suggests China would resort to nuclear first use if it were losing a conventional war with the United States. It’s possible Pompeo’s thinking has been influenced by this kind of talk in the White House.

The next time Secretary Pompeo appears before Congress, someone should ask for his views on the size of China’s nuclear arsenal and his assessment of the Chinese policies guiding how and when it might be used.

Another possibility is that the secretary is using the requirement of Chinese participation to try to diminish expectations for an extension of the New START treaty. Lack of Chinese inclusion was one of the principal reasons cited by the Trump administration in its decision to withdraw from the INF treaty. There is no indication Pompeo approached China about joining the INF treaty or participating in negotiations on the New START treaty. Perhaps that’s because he assumes China isn’t interested.

China’s Response

China consistently rejects multilateral arms control negotiations. It prefers international negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. So trilateral talks with Russia and the United States are unlikely. However, Chinese arms control experts often point out that China would be willing to enter into multilateral nuclear arms control negotiations when the United States and Russia reduce their numbers to levels approximately the same as the rest of the nuclear weapons states, which hover in the middle hundreds rather than in the thousands.

Chinese President Xi Jinping should seize the opportunity presented by Pompeo’s remarks to engage the United States on Chinese participation in New START talks that would result in dramatically lower limits on the size of US and Russian nuclear forces. Chinese arms control experts seem prepared to tackle the difficult technical issues involved in the verification of an agreement on deep nuclear cuts. They’ve been discussing verification issues at international arms control conferences ever since China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996.

Secretary Pompeo may not have intended to open the door to substantial nuclear reductions, but Xi would be remiss if he let this opportunity slip by without at least making an effort to further the discussion.

Nuclear Weapons in the Reiwa Era

Japan will soon have a new emperor and a new dynastic name to mark the traditional Japanese calender: Reiwa (令和). Interminable commentary on the significance of the name is just beginning, but in the end it will be defined not by words but by deeds. One of the most important acts the Japanese people may be compelled to take as the new era begins is to decide whether to allow their government to introduce US nuclear weapons into Japan. They may have to choose between continuing to honor the legacy of Hiroshima and the warnings of the hibakusha or abandoning Japan’s longstanding role as a leading voice for peace and nuclear disarmament.

Prime Minister Abe and the foreign policy elite of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are pushing the United States to increase the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia. They told US officials they want to alter Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles to permit the introduction of US nuclear weapons into Japan. They also want to revise Article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution, in which the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a mean of settling international disputes.” The Abe government’s desire to re-write the constitution and re-arm Japan is well known and hotly debated. But its efforts to bring US nuclear weapons into Japan are a closely guarded secret, known only to a small group of officials in Japan’s foreign policy establishment.

UCS obtained a document that contains a detailed description of the Japanese foreign ministry’s requirements for US nuclear weapons. Multiple conversations with the Japanese official who presented this document to his US counterparts not only confirmed its content, they also revealed this small group of hawkish officials wants to train Japanese military personnel to deliver US nuclear weapons. They would even like the United States to grant Japanese leaders the authority to decide when to use them. Japanese officials refer to this arrangement as “nuclear sharing.”

This information is not being kept from the Japanese people for security reasons. The responsible officials believe it is important for China to know Japan has the authority to make such a decision and the capability to carry it out. Preparations to make “nuclear sharing” a reality are being kept secret because these officials are afraid the Japanese public would oppose it. Their covert nuclear weapons wish list blatantly violates both the letter and the spirit of Japan’s constitution and the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.

Public opinion polls indicate many Japanese people would like to make the use or threat to use nuclear weapons illegal, which is the purpose of the recently adopted UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). A large majority of their elected representatives, even within Abe’s ruling LDP, want to uphold Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which forbid “nuclear sharing.” Many Japanese people take pride in the belief that their country plays a leading role in advancing nuclear disarmament.

The gap between the public’s aspirations and the private machinations of its current leaders is difficult to reconcile.

Prime Minister Abe, like US President Trump, governs his country with a mix of nationalism and authoritarianism. His political opponents seem incapable of mounting a serious challenge to his leadership or his policies. But the absence of effective opposition is not an indication of popular support. Abe’s approval rating is not that much better than Trump’s. And like the current US president, he holds on to power with a dedicated minority of loyalists, disingenuous manipulation of the mass media and the resignation of a dispirited majority who see no compelling alternative.

Abe appears to have injected his nationalist agenda into the selection of the name for the new era. Press reports highlight that Reiwa (令和) is the first Japanese dynastic name not taken from the Chinese classics. The collection of Japanese poetry that inspired Abe’s selection was popular among the military officers of Imperial Japan who led their nation into World War II. Critics panned Reiwa as a cold expression of Abe’s authoritarian tendencies, but it seemed to be well-received and gave an immediate lift to the popularity of a man on track to become the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history.

Abe told the press Reiwa suggests a period when “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.” His cabinet secretary told the world that Reiwa should be translated into English as “beautiful harmony.” So it may be that the initial appeal of the new name is more in line with the widespread public support for Japan’s pacifist constitution and the spirit of international cooperation than with Abe’s atavistic appeals to the chauvinist ambitions that led to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.

Only time will tell. Japanese attitudes towards nuclear weapons may be the most important window into the ultimate meaning of Reiwa. Making sure the Japanese people know what their government is saying and doing about nuclear weapons may be the best way to ensure that window is clear.

Also: today we’re releasing a short documentary that we filmed in Hiroshima last year. It covers some of the issues around the Japanese Foreign Ministry and US nuclear weapons, as well as firsthand accounts of the bombing.

There are Faster, Cheaper, Safer and More Reliable Alternatives to the Energy Department’s Proposed Multibillion Dollar Test Reactor

Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry recently announced the launch of the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) project, flagging it as one of the department’s top priorities. The project, which would be the first new DOE test reactor in decades, would differ from the DOE’s operating test reactors because it would be cooled by liquid sodium instead of water, enabling it to produce large numbers of “fast” neutrons. The DOE says that such a facility is needed to develop new reactors that use fast neutrons to generate electricity. US nuclear plants today are light-water reactors, which use slow (“thermal”) neutrons.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) questions the need for a dedicated fast neutron test reactor and, more generally, has serious concerns about fast reactor safety and security, detailed in a critique it released last year. Fast reactors pose nuclear proliferation and terrorism risks in part because they commonly use fuels containing plutonium, a nuclear weapon-usable material. Most fast reactor concepts also involve reprocessing of their spent fuel, which separates plutonium in a form that is vulnerable to theft.

Perry reported that the DOE has determined the “mission need” for the reactor, the first milestone for any new large department project, but the mission-need statement fails to make the case that the VTR is needed for fast-reactor development. Regardless, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, signed into law in September 2018, directed the department to build the VTR by the end of 2025. For is part, the department does not believe it can be completed before the end of 2026.

A Hefty Price Tag

Missing from Secretary Perry’s February 28 announcement was any estimate of the cost. In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, UCS has learned that a “rough order-of-magnitude” estimate for the VTR’s construction and startup is $3.9 billion to $6.0 billion. To build the reactor over the next seven years would require the DOE to spend, on average, $550 million to $850 million annually, which is comparable to the department’s total fiscal year 2019 budget for nuclear technology development of approximately $740 million. The DOE has requested $100 million for the project (which it now refers to as the Versatile Advanced Test Reactor) in fiscal year 2020.

Cheaper, Faster Alternatives

The FOIA documents also reveal that the DOE’s determination of mission need misquotes its own 2017 user needs assessment to justify the new test reactor. In fact, there are ways to simulate the range of neutron speeds typical of a fast reactor in an already existing test reactor, such as the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory or the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This could be accomplished by using neutron filters and possibly a different type of fuel. Going that route would be significantly cheaper: A 2009 DOE assessment suggests that this approach could achieve the minimum requirements necessary and would cost some $100 million to develop (in 2019 dollars), considerably less than the VTR project’s projected price tag.

Equally important, using one of the two currently operating test reactors could likely provide developers with fast neutrons more quickly  than the VTR project. The proposed test reactor would not be operational before the end of 2026, according to DOE’s proposed schedule, which it describes as “aggressive.” A recent DOE study estimated that it would take about 10 to 13 years for such a reactor to begin operation. Moreover, after the VTR startup, it would need to operate for some time—perhaps a few years—before it could be reliably used for testing, assuming there will be at least a few unforeseen problems. Thus it could be well over a decade before the VTR would become available. In contrast, the DOE estimated it would take seven years for the alternative system to become available at an operating test reactor.

The VTR mission-need statement also exaggerates the technical capabilities needed by the reactor developers who would use a fast test reactor. One of the main objectives of a test reactor is to bombard fuels and other materials with neutrons to study how they withstand radiation damage. This damage can be measured by a unit called “displacements per atom”—that is, the number of times each atom in a material sample is affected by a neutron. The more displacements per atom that a test reactor can provide per year, the faster a given test can be completed. The mission-need statement claims that reactor developers need a facility that can achieve at least 30 displacements per atom per year, although the reference it cites, a 2017 user needs assessment, only calls for a minimum of 20.

This difference is significant because researchers have shown that using the cheaper filtering approach in the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory could provide about 20 displacements per atom annually, so that the higher rate provided by a new reactor would not be needed. The mission need statement did not assess whether the modest additional capability that the VTR could provide—that is, 30 instead of 20—would be worth the substantial additional cost. If a reactor developer wanted to test a fuel sample up to 200 displacements, it would take 6.7 years in the VTR at a rate of 30 per year, compared to 10 years at the High Flux Isotope Reactor at a rate of 20 per year. But given that it might take more than a decade for the VTR to become available, it is far from clear it would help developers to achieve their goal any sooner than the alternative approach, which could be available in seven years.

A Better Test Reactor

Perhaps the clearest statement casting doubt on the need for the VTR was made by Westinghouse, one of the potential commercial users of fast reactor technology that the DOE surveyed in its user needs assessment. The originator of the pressurized light-water reactor (LWR), Westinghouse is now interested in developing a liquid lead-cooled fast reactor. However, in its response to the DOE survey, it states that any new test reactor should include capabilities for light-water reactor testing because “LWR technology will continue to be the backbone of nuclear energy for decades to come.”

UCS agrees with that statement. If the United States needs a new test reactor—and it may soon, given existing test reactors are many decades old—it would make more sense to build a new thermal neutron test reactor with the capability of generating fast neutrons if necessary, not the other way around. The technology is well-established, and the commercial need for a source of thermal neutrons is far more likely than for fast ones.

North Korea’s Missiles and the US-NK Summit

In April 2018, shortly before last June’s summit with President Trump, North Korea announced it was discontinuing its flight testing of ballistic missiles. For over a year now, it has not conducted any missile tests.

This represents a big change. In the five years 2013 to 2017, North Korea launched more than 80 flight tests of 10 different missiles, or an average of 16 flight tests per year. In 2017 alone, it launched 20 tests of seven types of missiles, including the successful launch of two different long-range missiles.

(Source: U.S. govt.)

That testing led to big advances in its missile program.

As of 2015 the longest range missile it had successfully tested was the Nodong, with an estimated range of about 1,300 km (800 miles). In November 2017 it successfully tested an intercontinental-range missile with a range ten times that long—13,000 km (8,000 miles)—enough to reach most or all of the United States.

How Important is a Ban on Flight Testing

We know a lot about North Korea’s missile flight tests over the years because you can’t hide a missile fired through the atmosphere. The United States has satellite sensors and radars that detect and track those tests essentially anywhere in the world.

Missile flight testing is needed for several reasons:

  1. To develop new missiles
  2. To proof-test and determine the reliability of missiles that are being built
  3. To train soldiers to use missiles in combat.

Stopping flight testing limits all three of these.

Countries typically test a new missile dozens of times before deploying it. Even though North Korea had one successful launch of its Hwasong-15 ICBM in late 2017, it has little idea whether a second test would be successful. These are very complicated mechanical systems and you need repeated testing to discover the possible failure modes and understand their probabilities.

For a missile to be militarily useful, you want to know how reliable it is. And you want to understand how likely it is to blow up on the launch pad before you decide to put a nuclear warhead on it.

In addition to this, North Korea hasn’t demonstrated a working reentry heat shield on a long-range trajectory. As long as it’s willing to accept low accuracy—which it would be if it plans to target large cities—developing a working heat shield doesn’t require advanced technology. North Korea should be able to solve this problem with time, but it is unlikely to consider these missiles militarily useful without actually demonstrating the technology on a flight test. A ban on testing keeps it from doing that.

While some press reports have said that following its one successful flight test of its Hwasong-15 ICBM, North Korea is working to mass produce it, I don’t believe they would do that. Preventing further flight tests would prevent this missile from becoming militarily useful. It would also limit operational training of military troops with its missiles.

So preserving North Korea’s ban on flight tests is an important security measure. And as noted above, a ban on flight testing has the advantage that it is completely verifiable with existing sensors.

What Does the Current Test Ban Cover?

When Kim announced the end of flight tests in April 2018, he said:

“no nuclear tests and intermediate-range and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire are necessary for the DPRK now. … We will discontinue nuclear tests and inter-continental ballistic rocket test-fire from April 21.”

So while North Korea has not flight tested any missiles in the past 15 months, it only announced it would stop testing long-range missiles—those with ranges longer than 5,500 km (3,500 miles). That includes the Hwasong-14 and 15 missiles.

A ban on testing long-range missiles would leave North Korea the option of continuing to develop and test intermediate and shorter range missiles. That includes the Hwasong-12, which may be able to reach US military bases in Guam. Banning only long-range flight tests would also allow North Korea to train soldiers with its existing shorter range missiles, which can reach targets in South Korea and Japan.

A key goal of the upcoming summit and future US-North Korean negotiations should be to formalize the testing ban, to make it permanent, and to extend it to cover shorter range missiles. The United States should also press for a ban on engine tests, and make clear the flight test ban includes satellite launches.

North Korea has not yet taken irreversible steps toward ending its missile program. But it has taken meaningful steps that would have been unthinkable as recently as 2017, and that suggests an openness to further steps that would be more meaningful. That would significantly advance security interests of the United States and its allies in the region.

Achieving these steps is likely to require a phased step-by-step process. There are a set of potential steps the United States could take as part of the negotiations. These include discussions of a peace treaty or new security arrangement in the region, scaling back military exercises that the North sees as threatening, and selective easing of sanctions.

A verified ban on flight testing, of course, is just a step. The ultimate goal should be to stop further missile development and production at all levels, and to eliminate existing missiles—and that is what the United States should be working for. But that will require North Korea to feel secure enough to agree to these steps, which would include intrusive verification measures. That is not going to happen overnight and will require reciprocal steps by the United States.

It’s worth noting that the United States has had a lot of hands-on experience with verifying the elimination and non-production of missiles over the past 30 years through the verification measures of the INF Treaty, which it recently announced it was leaving.

What about Reports that North Korea is Continuing to Build Up its Missile Sites?

North Korea has taken several steps that are consistent with its statement about discontinuing nuclear and missile tests. In May 2018 it destroyed the entrances and some of the tunnels at its nuclear test site. In July it dismantled some facilities at one of its main missile test sites. While these steps were done without international inspectors present and could be reversed, they are interesting steps that are consistent with a willingness to end testing.

More recently there have been press reports of satellite images that show Korean missile bases that had not been publicly identified earlier, and show that North Korea has been continuing its ongoing work at some of these sites. These send a different message.

But these reports shouldn’t derail negotiations. It’s useful to have more information about these sites as part of the public discussion, but it’s important to recognize that these “secret” sites have long been known and are being monitored by US intelligence.

Moreover, there is nothing in the negotiations so far that has obligated Pyongyang to stop work on these bases or dismantle them. Working to get agreement on such steps is an important goal for the upcoming summit. If the United States sees those steps as important, it should decide what it is willing to put on the table to get them.

Don’t Scapegoat China for Killing the INF Treaty. Ask it to Join.

September 23, 2016: Chinese UN Representative Liu Jieyi votes in favor of a UN Security Council resolution on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) urging all parties to push for the treaty’s entry into force.

The Trump administration recently announced it intends to walk away from an important agreement that reduces the risk of nuclear war—the INF Treaty. US officials said concerns about China were an important factor in deciding to scrap a nuclear arms control pact intended to last in perpetuity. But there is no evidence the Trump administration consulted Chinese leaders about its plans to withdraw or the concerns that supposedly made it necessary.

The Soviet Union and the United States negotiated the bilateral agreement in the mid-1980s during an especially tense period when both sides were upgrading their immense nuclear arsenals. Wide-spread public protests in Europe and the United States helped push both governments to agree to eliminate at least one class of weapons: ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 miles.

Contemporary US critics of that agreement, including US National Security Advisor John Bolton, argue the United States must quit the treaty because China is not subject to the same restriction. That’s a dubious justification for tearing up the treaty, although persuading China to join has obvious value. Unfortunately, getting Chinese leaders to the negotiating table is a tough sell when, from their perspective, the entire US defense and foreign policy establishment is chomping at the bit to fight a new Cold War in Asia. But it’s only impossible if, like Mr. Bolton, you never really bother to try.

There is good reason to believe China is not opposed to arms control negotiations or unwilling to make significant concessions to arrive at an equitable agreement.

The Peril and the Hope

Even before atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of the scientists and a few of the politicians who understood the long-term implications sought to impose international controls. They recognized these weapons were different. As horrible as the last war had been, a war fought with nuclear weapons would be far worse. No nation or coalition of nations could win such a war. The entire planet might become inhabitable. Human civilization and most of the living things on earth could perish, forever.

China came late to the nuclear table but the impact of the weapons on the scientists who developed them was similar. Hu Side, a former director of China’s nuclear weapons lab, wrote, “I’ve seen the mushroom clouds rise, felt the earth and mountain massifs shake and experienced the shock of the tremendous energy released by a nuclear explosion. It is precisely because of these experiences that I particularly understand why national decision-makers determined our country’s nuclear weapons were a defensive measure for strategic deterrence.” It may lack the poetry of Robert Oppenheimer‘s “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” but the sentiment is the same. Nuclear weapons are too powerful to be used to fight a war.

Until the late 1990s the nuclear arms race and efforts to stop it grew in tandem. Scientists rallied the public to restrain the self-destructive behavior of military and political leaders addicted to antiquated approaches to war and peace. But over the last thirty years the will to control the nuclear arms race has weakened while the addiction to antiquity has grown much stronger. This is especially true in US-China relations, where the most influential idea guiding US officials is “the Thucydides trap” and Chinese leaders propagandize “the Great Chinese Renaissance.”

The Beginning of the End

Ironically, international nuclear arms control began to die when China finally embraced it. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was the first international nuclear arms control accord China helped to negotiate. For decades, the Chinese Communist Party viewed nuclear arms control as vehicle for preserving the advantages of the Soviet Union and the United States. China lagged far behind in the nuclear arms race. By the time the negotiations reached their final stage China had conducted 47 nuclear tests and possessed several hundred nuclear warheads.  The United States had conducted 1067 tests and possessed approximately 15,000 nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, China signed the treaty.

After the Clinton administration failed to convince the US Senate to ratify the CTBT, progress in international nuclear arms control ground to a halt. Negotiations on a treaty to ban the production of the materials used to make nuclear warheads were cut short. The United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD) became paralyzed; unable to reach a consensus on how to start negotiations on any arms control agreement.

The Bush administration made things exponentially worse when it unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The 1972 agreement was based on the common sense notion that both the United States and the Soviet Union would be safer if they limited missile defenses so that neither side would feel compelled to build new nuclear-armed missiles to overwhelm those defenses.

President Obama gave a nice speech in Prague and his administration managed to preserve the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiated in 1991. But in order to get this New START agreement ratified Obama promised the Senate he would allow them to spend more than a trillion dollars to upgrade the entire US nuclear arsenal. And he steadfastly refused to even discuss a suggestion Chinese arms controllers felt was important: beginning talks in the UNCD on a new international agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space.

China does not look at nuclear arms control in isolation. Some forms of conventional weapons technology, like those involved in missile defenses, anti-satellite weapons and long-range conventional precision strike weapons impact Chinese decisions about the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal.

Back from the Brink

The most important thing about all forms of international arms control negotiations is that they bring adversaries together to talk. Dialogue builds trust. Trust that the other side isn’t trying to trick you into agreeing to something to gain an advantage. Trust that the other side respects you and is seeking an equitable agreement that reduces anxiety and the risk of war.

China has a small number of nuclear-armed ground-based intermediate range missiles that would fall under the original INF Treaty limits. But it also has a much larger number of conventionally armed missiles in this class that seem to be the major concern of US advocates of withdrawing from the treaty. Figuring out how to negotiate an expanded INF Treaty that would require China to dismantle them would introduce a number of new and difficult issues to resolve, but it could also lead to some very productive conversations on how to build trust and preserve the peace in East Asia.

Sadly, I suspect US advocates of killing the INF Treaty have no intention to talk to China about joining it, but if the United States wanted to open negotiations China is likely to put forward a few conditions.

First and foremost, the discussion on intermediate-range missiles would have to take place in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. China must not be the only target of concern. Most if not all of the other nations that possess this class of weapon would have to be included. Chinese leaders prefer international rather than bilateral or multilateral forums for arms control negotiations. It’s not an unreasonable preference, and it predisposes Chinese negotiators to accept the general principle that restrictions should apply to everyone.

Unlocking the UNCD will be difficult because decisions are made by consensus—a norm for negotiations many cultures prefer. Consensus may require discussion of other arms control issues. Recent history suggests preserving peace in outer space may be one of them. Agreeing to begin discussions does not commit the United States to a particular outcome. It just creates an opportunity to talk. So broadening the agenda to satisfy all of the attending parties is not unreasonable either.

Finally, international arms control negotiations are not an apples-for-apples, oranges-for-oranges kind of thing. They’re an apples-for-my-pick-from-the entire-produce-aisle sort of thing. Different countries choose to rely on different weapons for all kinds of reasons, like geography. Because of its huge land mass and its concerns about the assemblage of conventional US forces on its periphery, China sees conventionally armed ground-based intermediate range missiles as an especially effective countermeasure. It’s invested decades of effort and substantial financial and technical resources in developing and deploying those missiles. Asking China to give them up is going to cost the United States something in return.

If the United States were serious about wanting China to join the INF Treaty, it would be talking with Chinese arms controllers about changes the United States might be willing to make in exchange for surrendering what Chinese military planners see as one of their most valuable military capabilities. There is no indication such a discussion has ever taken place. Until it does, China cannot be blamed for the US decision to kill the INF Treaty.

 

 

The Demise of the INF Treaty is Dangerous

On February 1st, the Trump administration announced that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. The next day, Russia responded by doing the same. These withdrawals will take effect in six months, if nothing is done to save the treaty.

This course of events was no surprise, since President Trump has been threatening withdrawal for months, but the lack of surprise makes the decision no more welcome and no less dangerous. Withdrawal from the treaty undermines the security of the United States and its allies, and opens the door to a new era of arms racing, threatening US-Russian nuclear stability.

SS-20 and Pershing II missiles eliminated by the INF Treaty (Source: National Air and Space Museum)

What does the INF Treaty do?

The INF Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminated ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,400 miles, whether they carry nuclear or conventional weapons.

The treaty was part of the backbone of the Cold War arms control regime, helping to defuse tension and ratchet down the US-Soviet arms race. It was the first arms control treaty to require the elimination of existing weapons, rather than simply limiting their numbers, and resulted in the destruction of 846 US and 1,846 Soviet missiles. It also established a strong verification process.

Without this treaty, the United States and Russia will both be free to once again develop and deploy such missiles, and both have indicated interest in doing so.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act included a requirement to develop a conventional ground-launched cruise missile that would fall into the range prohibited by the INF Treaty, and Congress approved funding such a system in FY 2019. Such efforts, however, are complicated by opposition from NATO states to serving as a base for such missiles.

Withdrawal from the INF Treaty is misguided

Withdrawing from the INF Treaty demonstrates either a lack of understanding of how arms control works on the part of the Trump administration or, worse, a desire to undermine arms control agreements more generally. The latter may be the more likely explanation given the presence of advisors like John Bolton, who has a long history of actively working to oppose such treaties. This attitude is dangerous, and not just because of the demise of a single treaty.

Far from being a drawback, as opponents like Bolton believe, the limits imposed by treaties are one of their main benefits, in addition to providing stability and transparency in cases where they are sorely needed. The Reagan administration did not negotiate the INF Treaty as a favor to the Soviet Union, but rather to improve the security of the United States and its allies.

The proliferation of intermediate-range missiles was a major source of instability in Europe in the early 1980s, when such missiles based in the eastern part of the Soviet Union could deliver nuclear warheads to targets in Western Europe. The United States and NATO moved to deploy their own land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles to counter this perceived Soviet advantage, adding to the possibility that accidents or miscommunications could quickly lead to a major nuclear conflict. The INF Treaty removed all these missiles.

But isn’t Russia violating the treaty?

For several years, the United States has accused Russia of violating the treaty by developing and beginning to deploy the 9M729 cruise missile. Russia has continually denied the accusations, but there is solid evidence, and the United States should not ignore the violation.

However, the United States benefits from the constraints imposed by the INF Treaty and withdrawal would simply be shooting itself in the foot. Instead, the Trump administration should continue using the mechanisms in place under the treaty to address Russian violations, and undertake additional serious diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue, which it has yet to do.

For its part, Russia has also raised concerns that ground-based launchers designed for use with a US theater missile defense system based in Romania could be used to launch offensive missiles, which would violate the INF treaty as well. The United States has so far refused to discuss these concerns, which has complicated trying to resolve the Russian violations.

No treaty can guarantee that all parties will follow the rules. What they can do is provide clear rules, verification to check compliance with the rules, and mechanisms for addressing issues that arise—including violations. Without such agreements, there are no rules at all.

Broader consequences of withdrawal

If the INF Treaty does indeed end in six months as scheduled, that will leave New START as the only remaining US-Russian treaty constraining nuclear weapons. And even if the administration does not withdraw from New START, it is scheduled to expire in 2021 unless the parties come to an agreement to extend it for up to five years. So far there has been no movement in that direction.

Losing the treaty would not only mean the loss of important limits on US and Russian nuclear weapons, it would also end the expansive verification system that has been developed by the two countries since the 1970s. This means the United States would lose access to valuable information about what Russia is doing and have no standing to raise objections.

With Russia announcing the development of several new nuclear weapons and the United States poised to begin a massive effort to rebuild and enhance its own nuclear arsenal, now is the time to strengthen limits on nuclear arsenals and begin discussions to develop new ones, rather than eliminating them. Cold War leaders learned the hard way that negotiating such limits did more to enhance security on both sides than building ever-larger arsenals.

Instead of repeating past mistakes, the United States should learn from them and take steps now to head off another expensive and dangerous arms race.