UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only)

Some pretty good work by Congress on missile defense this year

Photo: Eric E Johnson/Creative Commons (Flickr)

The Congressional defense budget process is entering its conclusion, though battles remain. Despite little to show for it, the overall budget for missile defense continues to be robust. For example, the Senate appropriators met last week and added $1.2 billion above the Trump administration’s budget request for missile defense, including an additional $532 million for upgrades and six more boosters for the beleaguered Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, and added $222 million to fund program to replace the recently canceled Redesigned Kill Vehicle program. That is an unfortunate waste of tax dollars.

However, in other areas Congress—in particular the House—made a number of useful and positive corrections to the administration’s $9.4 billion missile defense budget request. The House also put several sensible new missile defense policies in place that deserve support.

While the final outcome will not be known until the House and Senate agree on a final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (conferees are due to start meeting this week), we have hopes that Congress is finally beginning a much-needed reassessment of the overall role and value of the US missile defense program. Here’s a review of the major developments.

Space-based missile defense

While they sound superficially appealing, space-based missile defenses are a bad idea.

Impractical, expensive and—worst of all—deeply destabilizing, we have opposed them since President Ronald Reagan sought massive investments in fantastical ideas like lasers powered by nuclear explosions in space. In the last decade, space-based missile defense has been exclusively a congressional add-on. Fortunately, its most important champions are no longer in the best positions to advance that agenda. Senator Ted Cruz, a long-time proponent, left the Armed Services Committee for Foreign Relations, while Representative Trent Franks, the House ring-leader, resigned in 2018.

Instead, we were worried that the Trump administration would jump on the space-based band wagon in a big way. Despite the enthusiasm expressed by Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, however, the administration didn’t commit to the idea in the President’s 2019 Missile Defense Review. It instead recommended another study, one of many in the Review on a variety of topics.

However, the administration did not wait for the results of these studies to try to move ahead on some of these misguided ideas.  Its Fiscal Year 2020 budget request sought funding for two space-based missile defense programs. First, they requested the Missile Defense Agency receive $34 million to “design, develop, and conduct a feasibility demonstration for a Space-Based Directed Energy intercept layer” using a neutral particle beam. This is an old, 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative-era relic and a surprising choice. While the science of creating a neutral particle beam is well-established, the technical challenges of building such a massive and delicate structure—a particle accelerator and its massive power source and optics—in space are enormous. Such a thing would be both expensive and easy to target, not to mention destabilizing.

The administration’s budget request also asked for $15 million for the newly created—and untested—Space Development Agency to study the idea of a space-based kinetic interceptor and propose a reference architecture. This idea has been studied numerous times and found to be ineffective and expensive, and—yet again—destabilizing.

Congress proved extremely skeptical about both these programs. The House and Senate versions of the NDAA zeroed out the money for the neutral particle beam and the kinetic interceptor study, and the House appropriators did as well. The Senate NDAA judged the kinetic interceptor study “duplicative” of boost-phase missile defense studies already being done at the Missile Defense Agency, and that funding a space-based neutral particle beam program is premature, since the studies mandated in the Missile Defense Review haven’t been finished. Last week, Undersecretary Griffin said that the Pentagon would be deferring the neutral particle beam work “indefinitely.”

(However, someone should pass that message on the Senate appropriators. As near as we tell, they provided funding for both space-based missile defense programs. At least we can’t find any language denying the money, which seems to imply support for the program.)

In another positive step, the House bill eliminated a requirement in the 2018 NDAA (Public Law 115–91) to develop a space-based missile defense test bed. While a test bed might sound appealing—it’s just research, right?—if interceptors were put in space even as part of a test bed, they could have substantial capability against other countries’ satellites even though they would not be an effective missile defense. That is one of the primary reasons that space-based defenses are so destabilizing: They do a bad job at their nominal task but are highly effective against other targets, like satellites.

Classified missile defense work

Unfortunately, a sizable and growing chunk of the Pentagon’s missile defense work is being done out of the public’s eye. Specifically, the Missile Defense Agency’s classified budget got a significant bipartisan boost. The House Authorizers added $135 million to the $377 million request; the Senate Authorizers added $125 million. Unofficially, we were told that none of this is for space-based missile defense interceptors or directed energy, which is reassuring, but we are concerned about what this half-billion dollars in classified work is.

Test of an Aegis SM-3 IIA interceptor against an ICBM-range target

The most important missile defense issue to be resolved in conference is whether the congressionally mandated but ill-conceived test of an SM-3 IIA interceptor against an ICBM-range target will go forward. In FY18, Congress set a requirement that the Missile Defense Agency test the Aegis’ SM-3 IIA interceptor, currently under development, against an ICBM-range target by 2020. The test is intended to demonstrate its suitability to provide a supplemental homeland defense to the struggling Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.

The Aegis missile defense system, based on ships and a few land-based sites, was designed as a regional defense but it may have some capability to engage ICBM-range missiles, if properly cued. The speed of the interceptor suggests that it may be able to reach the targets, but a demonstration would help identify issues with the ability to successfully destroy long-range missiles.

Notably, Mike Griffin, the enthusiast for space-based defenses and head of the Pentagon’s research arm, recently cancelled the GMD system’s Redesigned Kill Vehicle program, a major initiative intended to improve existing U.S. long-range defenses that would have used the same seeker as the SM-3 IIA. That may indicate some problems with using it against long-range missiles. (The Government Accountability Office indicated in its 2017 report that this might be a problem.) And the Aegis system, just like all missile defense systems, has yet to be tested against countermeasures, including credible decoys, that could confuse the system.

The Aegis system, however, could present a serious challenge to long-term prospects for nuclear arms control. The future inventory of these mobile defensive interceptors is projected to be in the hundreds. If that happens—and if the system has proven capability against long-range missiles—it would present a strategic challenge to which Russia and particularly China will almost certainly respond. (We lay out these issues in some detail here.) As the system has historically always been presented as a regional system without strategic capabilities, the United States will also need to seriously discuss this change with its allies that participate in missile defense systems that use this technology, including NATO and Japan.

In that light, the House appropriators wisely reprogrammed the funding for missile defense test to rescope it as a non-ICBM test. Similarly, the House NDAA eliminated the funding for the ICBM-range test. Unfortunately, while the House NDAA initially had a provision rescinding the ICBM testing mandate, it was stripped out during consideration in the House Armed Services Committee. And the Senate NDAA provided funding for the test. The final outcome, therefore, will be determined in conference over the coming weeks.

Positive House NDAA Measures

The House approved a number of very useful missile defense-related measures in the NDAA.

More realistic testing for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.

Representative Bill Foster’s (D-IL) amendment revises the testing requirement for the GMD Systemto include the use of threat-representative countermeasures. None of the 19 intercept tests of the system have included realistic countermeasures of the type that an adversary would use to confuse the defense. In fact, this is a weak spot in the testing of all of the US ballistic missile defense systems; the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation’s 2015 unclassified missile defense assessment indicated that no recent tests of any BMD system had included realistic countermeasures. An UCS-led expert study in 2000 concluded that realistic countermeasures would readily defeat the hit-to-kill technology used by the GMD system.

Detailed assessment of the of the effectiveness of missile defense systems

Representative Salud Carbajal (D-CA) got approved an amendment tasking the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation with publicly providing in the agency’s annual report important information about the test program and the effectiveness of the systems—information that is currently provided only in special missile defense assessments. These detailed assessments provide information essential to rigorous Congressional and public oversight but more often than not are issued only in a classified version.

National Academies study of the impacts of strategic missile defense on US security

Another Representative Foster amendment will task the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of the impacts that the pursuit of strategic missile defense has had on US security, including an assessment of adverse reactions by potential adversaries and whether US missile defense has dissuaded any state from pursuing long-range missile programs. This work is essential to beginning a necessary reassessment of the role and value of US missile defenses. Are Americans getting a positive return in terms of US security for the more than $40 billion we have invested in the last two decades? We think the answer to that question is no, but it certainly deserves serious study and the full engagement of Congress.

Boost-phase missile defense Analysis of Alternatives

Noting that the MDA’s budget submission included—with little justification—initiating a space-based boost phase neutral particle beam missile defense, the House directs the Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to conduct a comprehensive Analysis of Alternatives on current boost phase technologies being developed or investigated, with a report due March 31, 2020. As noted above, it is unlikely that the particle beam concept will now go forward but having the relatively independent CAPE office look at all the alternatives is probably a pretty good idea.

“More Nukes” Will Not Make Anyone Safer

The New York Times found an odd way to commemorate this year’s anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings—by publishing on August 9 an opinion piece by columnist Bret Stephens titled “The U.S. Needs More Nukes.” Matt Korda has a nice article about it in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I wanted to add a few comments of my own.

Stephens begins his essay by claiming that America’s allies are skeptical of the United States as a military partner because of President Trump. That is probably true, but linking their skepticism to the idea that the US nuclear arsenal is somehow deficient is patently absurd. What prompts their skepticism is the Trump administration’s dangerously provocative actions, its unpredictability, as well as President Trump’s penchant for devaluing traditional alliances.

Stephens’s overall argument seems to be that we would be better off without arms control agreements because it is possible that states might cheat on them. But arguing that arms control has failed and should be discarded because it hasn’t worked perfectly is like saying we should get rid of laws against murder since they haven’t stopped all murders.

Treaties create transparency, predictability, and constraints that both sides agree are beneficial, and they set up verification measure to ensure that any meaningful cheating is detected. US negotiators have gone to great lengths to design verification protocols to minimize the chances for and consequences of cheating, and have routinely stated that the United States is better off with the stability and constraints that such agreements provide than with an unrestrained arms race.

No, there’s no “gap” in nuclear capabilities

Let’s take a closer look at some of the other major problems with Stephens’ argument.

  • There is no “gap” in US nuclear capabilities, as Stephens claims. The United States already has a wide range of low-yield nuclear weapons in its arsenal (Fig. 1). It also has more than sufficient nuclear weapons to ensure its ability to provide deterrence for itself and its allies. Withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty to allow it to deploy even more nuclear weapons would not improve US security. Rather, it would allow Russia to continue to build up its own arsenal unconstrained, leading both countries toward a new arms race.

Fig. 1 (Source: UCS)

  • Stephens’ insinuation that NATO countries would like the United States to withdraw from the INF Treaty and build more nuclear weapons does not match reality. The Pershing missiles the Reagan administration began deploying in the early 1980s proved to be extremely unpopular with Europeans, who staged massive demonstrations demanding their removal at the height of the Cold War. That backlash was a key reason why the United States ultimately negotiated the INF Treaty in 1987. European sentiment has not changed much since then. There is opposition to NATO states serving as a base for conventional US intermediate-range missiles such as the ground-launched conventional cruise missile Congress greenlighted in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
  • It’s true that Taiwan is potentially the most dangerous flashpoint between the United States and China. But when Chinese military planners analyze how likely the United States is to intervene if the Chinese military moved against the island, their conclusion is unlikely to be influenced by the specific number or types of weapons the United States possesses.
  • Stephens cites a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) projection that China could double its nuclear arsenal within a decade, but it’s important to recognize that DIA estimates of China’s nuclear capabilities are often far higher than those of other US intelligence agencies and have not proved to be accurate. China’s nuclear arsenal today is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950. It has been slowly modernizing its nuclear force over the years but it is far less capable than the US nuclear force, and will remain that way even if the United States did nothing. But the United States is hardly standing still: it has a trillion-dollar plan to upgrade and/or replace all three legs of the nuclear triad—submarines, land-based missiles, and bombers—and their associated warheads over the next 30 years.

Many of the Stephens’ examples of cheating are either not cheating or are cases in which the existence of a treaty allowed the issue to be resolved. For example:

  • “Iran’s resumption of nuclear work” is a result of the Trump administration pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal), which was successfully constraining this work—exactly what an arms control agreement is designed to do.
  • The Soviet Union did build a radar at Krasznoyarsk in violation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, but Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush both confronted Moscow using mechanisms provided by the treaty, and the Russians ultimately dismantled it. (The treaty itself remained in force until the President George W. Bush withdrew from it in 2002 in order to build missile defenses.)

Cold War logic

It was Cold War logic like Bret Stephens’ that led the United States and Soviet Union to build up arsenals of more than 60,000 nuclear weapons (Fig. 2). Various crises, misunderstandings and near-misses have demonstrated the lethal insanity of such thinking. Having lived with this intractable face-off firsthand, leaders on both sides sought ways to bring the situation under some semblance of control before they stumbled into an unwanted nuclear war. Their answer—endorsed not only by diplomats, but by military leaders as well—was to pursue a series of arms control treaties to limit the numbers and types of weapons they each possessed. And both sides agreed that those treaties enhanced their own national security. Those agreements eventually helped to bring the US and Russian nuclear arsenals down to about 4,000 each, with fewer than 2,000 deployed by each country. That’s still a lot, but a substantial improvement compared to the unconstrained days of the early arms race.

Fig. 2. US (blue) and Soviet/Russian (red) and rest-of-world (tan) nuclear arsenals over time. The INF Treaty was signed in 1987. (Source: Nuclear Notebook)

It took decades of hard work and negotiations to reach the point we are at today. Those like Bret Stephens who seem to forget why negotiators did all that work could undo it in much less time, and that is the direction that we currently seem to be heading under the Trump administration. The world was lucky to survive the Cold War with little more than a rapidly fading memory of the fear that living in such a world provoked, but humanity may not be so lucky the next time.

Why Did the Pentagon Conduct a Treaty-Violating Test?

On Sunday, the Pentagon announced that it had launched a Tomahawk cruise missile with a range “more than 500 kilometers” from a ground-based launcher at a test site in California.

The purpose, it said, was to use “data collected and lessons learned from this test” to “inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.”

The real purpose of the test, however, appears to be to underscore the US decision to leave the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by conducting a launch that would violate the terms of the treaty. INF prohibited all US and Russian land-based missiles, or launchers for those missiles, with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.

Was this really needed?

Reagan and Gorbachev after signing the INF Treaty in 1987 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Some people have argued that the United States needs to develop these weapons to fill a “gap” in its capabilities. But since the US has thousands of cruise missiles of different kinds on planes, ships, and submarines, it’s hard to make the case that launching one from the ground fills a meaningful “gap” of any kind.

For example, the US fired more than 100 Tomahawk missiles from ships at targets in Syria in 2017 and 2018. (While Tomahawks were designed to carry either nuclear or conventional explosives, they currently only carry non-nuclear warheads.)

Something isn’t right

Two things about Sunday’s test seem particularly odd:

First, the test ironically seemed to confirm concerns Russia has raised for years about a possible US violation of the INF Treaty. In particular, Russia has noted that the US missile defense system in Romania and soon to be placed in Poland uses ground-based launchers for its interceptors, and that those launchers could also be used for firing offensive missiles like the Tomahawk. This interoperability would allow the missile defense sites in Romania and Poland to be quickly converted to offensive sites.

While the United States has consistently denied this possibility, Sunday’s test indeed used the Mark-41 launch tube that is part of those missile defense systems. The Pentagon insists the system is “configured” differently to launch Tomahawks rather than interceptors, but the difference appears to be in software and not hardware. Russia would not know how long it would take to make such a change, or whether the change had already taken place.

So while US concerns about Russian violations of the INF Treaty appear to be valid, Sunday’s test appeared to verify that Russian concerns about US violations were also valid.

Second, since this system does not add any meaningful new capabilities to the US arsenal, the primary result of the test may be to increase tensions with Russia and China and potentially spur a competitive arms buildup. Doing that for no particular gain seems senseless, and potentially costly and dangerous.

The US decision to conduct this test appears to be what we sometimes call “spherically stupid”—stupid from any direction you look at it.

The Next Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Estimate of casualties from a single Chinese nuclear warhead targeting Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan by NUKEMAP.

Japan was the first, the last and the only nation to be attacked with nuclear weapons. If it continues along the path set by Prime Minister Abe and the national security bureaucrats of his Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), it may also be the next.

The laws and norms restraining the development and deployment of nuclear weapons are dissolving in the same corrosive nationalism that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One by one laboriously negotiated constraints are disappearing. The latest to go was the INF Treaty. Mr. Abe’s government did nothing to preserve it, and may have intentionally hastened its demise. For more than a decade LDP bureaucrats have been lobbying the US government to redeploy US nuclear weapons in Asia. Some Japanese officials, including Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba, have discussed putting US nuclear weapons back in Japan, training the Japanese Self-Defense Force to deliver them and obtaining US permission to decide when to use them.

Fear of China

Government and military officials in Japan and the United States are in the grips of increasing anxiety about China. The steady growth of a national economy containing nearly one-fifth of humanity is the cause of their worries and the animus guiding some of President Trump’s trade warriors. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) eclipsed Japan’s in 2010 and will soon surpass the GDP of the United States. China has held military spending to consistent 2% of GDP since 1979, but combined with the rapid pace of Chinese economic growth Chinese military expenditures have created the impression of an equally rapid military buildup US and Japanese security experts assume must be aimed at something other than self-defense.

Japanese security experts fear China will act the same way Japan did in the 1930s. US security experts worry China will behave the same way the United States does now. Neither feels comfortable living with those thoughts.

Both sets of officials imagine new nuclear weapons will relieve their anxiety. The Trump administration wants to offset China’s increasing conventional military capabilities with new “low-yield” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons the United States can use to avoid defeat in a future war with China. The nuclear thinking within Abe’s LDP is similar but less clear cut. In a lengthy discussion about China in Washington in 2009, Mr. Akiba told me he believed that if Chinese leaders knew Japan had access to US nuclear weapons, a military trained to deliver them and a government with the authority to use them then China would be less assertive on everything from territorial disputes to trade negotiations.

Resurgent Nationalism

The elevation of national ambitions, priorities and interests over international agreements that subordinate all three to shared peace and prosperity is rapidly overturning decades of halting but inspiringly successful efforts to not only avoid another world war but to create a more sustainable and equitable global economy. The collapse of international nuclear arms control is accelerating in a context where all international organizations are under assault, and many of the international laws and norms that created them are being disparaged or ignored.

Abe’s LDP was one of the first to subvert the post World War II consensus on the dangers of nationalism.  The prime minister and the leaders of his party bristled at the continuation of ritual expressions of remorse for the consequences of Japanese militarism and chose instead to ostentatiously honor the perpetrators. They sought to restore Japan’s national stature by overturning the “peace constitution” instituted in the wake of the atomic bombings and Japan’s defeat. Steve Bannon admiringly told the LDP that Abe was Trump before Trump. The only difference between Abe and his American idol is that the prime minister still values international trade agreements seen as essential to Japan’s economic survival.

It is unlikely President Trump is self-consciously leading an organized effort to redirect US foreign, economic and military policy. His only clear interest–the focus of all his presidential activity–appears to be simple self-aggrandizement. But the aberrant character of his campaign and his government repelled traditional US  foreign policy elites and attracted a cabal of sycophants, opportunists and ideologues, like Bannon, who mobilized longstanding popular resentments against post-war US internationalism that Trump shared and articulated. Public support for Trump’s “America-first” orientation enabled his underlings to institutionalize a rapid US withdrawal from many of its international obligations.

China, on the other hand, embraced the idea of global community and emerged as one of internationalism’s most vocal defenders. This difference may provide a new ideological foundation for anti-Chinese policies similar to those that organized US-China relations during the Cold War.

Precarious Planning

The war all three nations imagine might come would be fast and vast. US plans include preemptive long range missile strikes deep into central China. US leaders refuse to rule out the possibility that some of those missiles would be armed with nuclear warheads.

Chinese plans include large-scale missile launches at every imaginable US military target on its periphery, including US military bases in Japan. Some of China’s missiles are capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads. Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated they will never, under any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons but US and Japanese officials don’t believe them.

Within minutes of the beginning of a war between China and the United States–a war Abe’s new interpretation of the Japanese constitution obliges Japan to join even if it is a not party to the dispute that starts it–there will be hundreds of missiles headed for scores of targets spread over an incredibly large area of East Asia. The first things to be destroyed will be the antennas, radars and computer networks commanders on all sides rely upon to assess what’s happening and communicate with their troops. None of them can be certain some of the missiles headed in their direction are not armed with nuclear warheads.

In the midst of this fast-moving high-stakes chaos it is not inconceivable that a nuclear weapon could be used by either side, perhaps without authorization or by mistake, igniting a much broader nuclear war that could obliterate Japanese urban populations near US military bases and major metropolitan areas in the continental United States.

Delusional Thinking

Even more frightening is the belief of Japanese and US defense officials that they can use use low yield nuclear weapons first to control the escalation of the war. They imagine if they use these nuclear weapons China will give up the fight without retaliating.  The idea is an old one stretching all the way back to the beginning of the nuclear age.

The Chinese communist leadership faced this type of US nuclear threat before during the Taiwan Straits Crisis of the 1950s. They did not have nuclear weapons then but were allied with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Declassified Chinese and Soviet archives show China’s leaders were prepared to take the blow and continue to fight. They did not expect Soviet retaliation on their behalf so long as the scale of the US nuclear attack was limited. Soviet leaders, however, insisted they must retaliate in order to preserve their own credibility.

It is impossible to know how a nuclear-armed China would respond today. I suspect even China’s leaders do not know what they would do. There is, however, a reasonable chance it would not be what US military planners expect. The United States foreign policy and defense establishment does not have a very good track record when it comes to understanding Chinese thinking or predicting Chinese behavior.

China does not have low yield nuclear weapons so if it did retaliate, even in a very limited way, it would be with missiles carrying nuclear warheads with an explosive force 30-40 times larger than the weapons the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One classified Chinese text on the operations of its nuclear forces suggests they would choose a relatively isolated but important military target in the theater of war, like Okinawa or Guam.  A single Chinese nuclear warhead targeting Kadena Air Base in Okinawa would kill approximately 90,000 people and injure 200,000 more, most of whom would be innocent Okinawans and the families of the 18,000 American and 4,000 Japanese personnel who work there. It’s hard to believe either side would be able exercise “escalation control” at that point in an already devastatingly massive conflict.

Lessons Worth Remembering

We’ve managed to avoid sliding into another “great power” conflict for 74 years because up until very recently our governments understood the dangers of nationalism and the necessity to subordinate national interests to international law and organization. Japan’s peace constitution embodies this better than any other legal document of the post-war era.

“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

The constitution may have been imposed by the United States at the end of WW II but the Japanese people came to cherish it and transformed those commitments into a pillar of Japan’s post-war national identity.

I find it sadly ironic that US officials have been pressing their Japanese counterparts to abandon that language for decades to no avail until Abe’s LDP pledged to restore Japan’s national honor and autonomy by finally capitulating to this foreign demand.

Japan’s new nationalists and their US counterparts justify their challenge to the post-war international consensus by pointing to the rise of China. The implication is that China, not the United States and Japan, is to blame for the disintegration of the international order. Rhetorically, at least, nothing could be farther from the truth. The key component of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy is the concept of a “community of common human destiny.” The five aims of the policy are to “build enduring peace, universal security, shared prosperity, openness and tolerance and a clean and beautiful world.”

Not exactly Mein Kampf, is it.

Despite its many horrible faults, the Chinese government is not championing nationalism or disparaging internationalism. It has a number of seemingly intractable sovereign disputes with some of its neighbors, including Japan, but those disputes do not necessarily foretell the emergence of another Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany or Soviet Union.

I’ve spent most of the last thirty-five years living, studying and working in China. The one constant in the breathtaking transformation of that country during this period is the consistently enormous gap between US perceptions of what is happening in China and the reality I experience when I am there. It’s possible US and Japanese fears may be exaggerated or misplaced.

Attempting to address those fears by exerting pressure, waging trade wars and flooding East Asia with new nuclear weapons will put all three nations on the path to a war none of them can win. The only way out of our present difficulties is to negotiate mutually acceptable compromises in the interest of the common good.

China Holds Firm on No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

“Enthusiastically celebrate our country’s successful test launch of a nuclear missile” (1966)

Ever since I took this job 17 years ago US colleagues of all political and intellectual persuasions have been telling me that sooner or later China would alter, adjust, amend or qualify the policy that China will never, under any circumstances, use nuclear weapons first. Yesterday, the Chinese Ministry of Defense released a much-anticipated new white paper on China’s national defense policies. Here’s what it says about nuclear weapons:

China is always committed to a nuclear policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally. China advocates the ultimate complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. China pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defense, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

It would be difficult to compose a more emphatic rejection of claims that China’s no first use policy is changing. The statement also indicates it is not Chinese policy to use nuclear weapons first to forestall defeat in a conventional military conflict with the United States. China does not have an “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy.

China is not preparing to fight a nuclear war with United States. It does not have “battlefield” or “tactical” or “non-strategic” nuclear weapons. Chinese nuclear strategists don’t think a nuclear war with the United States is likely to happen. And they seem sure it won’t happen as long as the US president believes China can retaliate if the United States strikes first.

That’s not a high bar to meet, which is why China’s nuclear arsenal remains small and, for the time being, off alert.

China sees its comparatively modest nuclear modernization program as a means to convince US leaders that a few Chinese ICBMs can survive a US first strike and that these survivors can penetrate US missile defenses. Chinese nuclear planners might be willing to slow or scale back their nuclear modernization efforts if the United States were willing to assure China’s leaders it would never use nuclear weapons first in a military conflict with China. Chinese experts and officials have been asking the United States to offer that assurance for decades. US experts and officials consistently refuse.

In the absence of a no first use commitment from the United States, Chinese nuclear strategists believe continued improvements to their nuclear arsenal are needed to assure China’s leaders their U.S. counterparts won’t take the risk of attacking China with nuclear weapons. Chinese experts know US efforts to develop a working ballistic missile defense system are not going well, but they still feel the need to hedge against continued US investment in the system with incremental improvements in the quality and quantity of China’s small nuclear force.

Given the impassioned attack on constructive US-China relations currently sweeping US elites off their feet, along with the continued proliferation of misinformation about Chinese nuclear capabilities and intentions, many US commentators are likely to brush aside the new white paper’s reiteration of China’s longstanding nuclear no first use policy. It doesn’t fit in the emerging US story about a new Cold War. That’s unfortunate, especially as the US Congress threatens to ramp up a new nuclear arms race its supposed adversary has no intention to run.



Do Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Hold the Key to Peace in Northeast Asia?

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1969. Wise beyond their years?

I’m not a Rolling Stones fan. There’s something a little dark about their music. I prefer the Beatles, who offered more light and love to listeners. But when it comes to hope for a peaceful way out of the Korean War, the songwriters for the Stones may have given us the key to ending it.

The war started in June of 1950 when Kim Jong-un’s grandfather sent his army south to unify his country, which was divided in half at the end of World War II. He almost succeeded. The United States stopped him. But instead of putting things back the way they were, US forces pushed north to eliminate Kim the elder and his communist government. They almost succeeded. The People’s Republic of China stopped them. The fighting ended in 1953—at the same dividing line where it started—but the war did not.

To make a really long story ridiculously short, the North and the South, the United States and China continuously prepare to carry on the fight. They’ve packed an unimaginably large amount of military hardware into Northeast Asia and ostentatiously practice using it. The balance of forces has been tilting against North Korea for quite awhile. China isn’t the reliably militant communist ally it was in 1950. The North’s economy is tiny and crippled by UN sanctions. But it has one thing going for it: nuclear weapons.

The Kim family dynasty sacrificed a lot to get them. The idea that the grandson is going to give them up before there’s major changes in the current situation, including a formal end to the war, is wishful thinking.

The United States and China have nuclear weapons too. Theirs are legal. North Korea’s are not. The Kims signed a treaty promising they wouldn’t make them. The United States and China signed the same treaty promising they would get rid of theirs but, whatever. For a long time now the United States has been ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea, first to stop them from trying to make nuclear weapons and, now that they’ve succeeded, to give them up. Things got pretty tense a few years ago. Fighting words were flying. Missiles too. Then the Olympics happened.

I love the Olympics. It’s one of those moments we’re all reminded we can love our own countries and compete with people from other ones without hating and killing them. In that spirit the leader of the South invited the leader of the North to meet and talk. There’s been a lot of meeting and talking since then. But every time the talk gets round to ending the war some cranky US somebody or another tells the North, “Only if you give us your nuclear weapons first!” He got sent off to Mongolia before the last meeting and things seemed to get better.

China’s leader, just back from his first visit to North Korea, seems to have put a new deal together. I call it the everybody chills plan. North Korea freezes its nuclear weapons program; the bombs and the missiles, but gets to keep what it’s got. The United States relaxes its military posture but gets to keep its troops in the neighborhood and parade them around as long as it does it more politely. China and South Korea get to help North Korea improve its economy, but UN sanctions that put some limits on what kind of help they can provide and how North Korea uses it remain in place.

Lots of good things could happen if everybody chills. First, no war or threats of war. That’s not a small thing. If they can keep that up for awhile everybody may get more comfortable with the idea of putting it in writing.  Second, North Korea can sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Just saying no to nuclear testing is always a good idea. Third, the UN can get its inspectors back in North Korea to make sure its nuclear arsenal isn’t getting bigger or better. That seems like a real plus to me. Finally, and most importantly, the poor people of North Korea can catch a much-deserved break. Nobody has suffered more from all of this than they have.

Yeah, North Korea gets to keep its nuclear weapons. That’s not good. The United States and everyone else threatened by those weapons will still have to worry about them. But that’s where the Stones come in. When it comes to North Korea, as to many things in human life, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.


The House is Setting a New, More Rational Direction for US Nuclear Policy

The House today began debating its version of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’ annual effort to oversee US security policy and set defense program funding levels. What’s different this year is the bill signals a new, much-needed change in direction for US nuclear weapons policy, one that would reduce the nuclear threat and cut some spending on these weapons.

The House bill stands in stark contrast with the version the Senate passed easily in late June, which would fully fund the Trump administration’s nuclear programs and in some cases even increase funding. We support passage of the House version of the NDAA; if its version becomes law, it will be a victory not only for US security, but also for common sense.

The House bill is chock-full of positive provisions. For example, it would prohibit deployment of the Trump administration’s new “low-yield” nuclear warhead; cut funding for an unnecessary replacement for the current ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile; and reduce the excessive, but congressionally mandated, requirement for the number of plutonium pits that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has been told to produce.

Rep. Adam Smith speaking at a Ploughshares Fund event

This new, rational direction in nuclear policy is being spearheaded by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee and an outspoken critic of many of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons policies. He and his like-minded colleagues are using their newly minted majority power to rethink the role that nuclear weapons play in US security policy.

Defunds W76-2 “low-yield” warhead

The W76-2 “low-yield” warhead, which would be deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, is an ill-conceived attempt to lower the threshold for nuclear war. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and other experts have written, the W76-2 is “dangerous, unjustified, and redundant.” It would thrust US ballistic-missile submarines into regional conflicts instead of reserving them for their crucial role as a nuclear deterrent, providing a secure means of retaliation if they should ever be needed.

The Trump administration requested $19.6 million for the Navy to begin installing these new warheads on missiles later this year. The House defense authorization bill sensibly zeros out this money, but Republicans plan to offer an amendment to the bill on the House floor that would restore that funding. Fortunately, the amendment is unlikely to pass. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have twice attempted to restore the money and failed along party lines both times., The House Appropriations Committee also eliminated funding for the low-yield warhead, and the full House already rejected an attempt to restore the W76-2 money in an appropriations bill by a 236 to 192 vote.

Cuts funding for Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

The House bill would cut $103 million from the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being developed to replace the existing Minuteman III missile by 2030. The bill also initially called for an independent study of options that could extend the Minuteman III’s life to 2050. This would postpone spending on the new ICBM, which some estimates expect to cost $100 billion. Republicans in the Armed Services Committee, however, succeeded in removing that study requirement. Fortunately, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has submitted an amendment that would restore a version of the independent study. Extending the life of the Minuteman III instead of building a new missile is a reasonable, cost-saving option that could facilitate an eventual phase out of the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad as the older missiles reach the end of their lives.

Reduces pit production requirements

The House defense authorization bill also reduces a congressionally mandated requirement for the NNSA to produce plutonium pits, the fissile core of nuclear weapons. In 2015, Congress passed a law mandating that the NNSA must demonstrate that it can produce 80 pits annually by 2027. A provision in this year’s Senate version of the defense authorization bill goes further, requiring the NNSA to produce80 pits per year by 2030, not simply demonstrate the capacity to do so.

The House version, conversely, reduces the 80-pit requirement to 30 pits per year by 2026. This would provide a more than adequate capacity for the foreseeable future. It makes sense for the United States to have some ability to produce pits, but there is no sound reason to require such a large number. Indeed, based on experiments conducted by scientists at the weapons laboratories, in 2007 the NNSA concludedthat most pits have a lifetime of at least 100 years. A new study is underway that will determine whether they can last even longer.

The House version of the bill includes a “Sense of Congress” provision that the NNSA should prioritize pit production at its existing manufacturing site at the Los Alamos National Laboratory instead of developing a second pit production capability at the incomplete and abandoned Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel facility at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, as the NNSA has proposed. The House Armed Services Committee rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) that attempted to retain the 80-pit- per-year requirement and supported the NNSA’s two-site proposal for pit production.

A recent congressionally mandated independent studyconcluded that none of the options considered for pit production at either one or two sites “can be expected to provide 80 [pits per year] by 2030.” The study, conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses, also concluded that “[e]ventually achieving a production rate of 80 [pits per year] is possible for all options considered . . . but will be extremely challenging.” Additionally, the study found that NNSA cost projections for the project are unrealistically low.

Heeding the study’s conclusions, the House defense authorization bill would significantly cut funding for pit production by $241 million, to $471 million. The Senate version of the bill, by contrast, would fully fund the president’s request at $711 million.

Reconsiders the Trump administration’s proposed new nuclear warhead

The Trump administration has proposed to replace the current W78 warhead carried on Minuteman missiles with a new W87-1 warhead. This new warhead would use the new plutonium pits that the NNSA is planning to produce but, as noted above, would not be able to complete on the schedule or budget currently proposed.

If the W87-1 warhead goes forward, it would be the first new US nuclear warhead produced since the end of the Cold War. The NNSA estimates the cost to produce the W87-1 will be more than $15 billion, not including the additional cost of producing the plutonium pits, which the NNSA calculates would run $14 billion to $28 billion, an estimate that the Institute for Defense Analyses study concluded is too low.

The House bill would require the Pentagon to assess alternatives for replacing the W78 and slash W87-1 funding from $112 million to $53 million. An even better solution would be to withdraw the W78 and store it, and deploy more of the existing W87 warheads that are already on top of half of the 400 deployed Minuteman missiles. There are more than enough additional W87 warheads in storage to make this possible.

Considers a ‘no-first-use’ policy

There’s even more to like about the House defense authorization bill. For example, it would require a federally funded research and development center to assess the risks and benefits of a US no-first-use nuclear policy, including gauging the potential reactions by US allies. Rep. Smith has already introduced legislation that would make it US policy to not be the first nation to use nuclear weapons, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has introduced an identical bill in the Senate. The House bill would also require the undersecretary of defense for policy to produce a report on the Pentagon’s efforts to include the risks of an inadvertent escalation to nuclear war in its decisionmaking.

(Note that this summary does not include how the House defense authorization bill addresses missile defense issues. This is another area where the new House Armed Services Committee leadership has made a sensible change in direction, and it will be the subject of a separate post.)

What now?

The full House will take up the defense authorization bill today and is expected to put the finishing touches on the bill by Friday. As mentioned above, Republicans likely will again attempt to restore funding to deploy the W76-2. They also have offered an amendment that would remove the independent study of no-first-use, which they failed to do in the House Armed Services Committee.

With Democratic control of the House, these new amendments will likely be defeated, but the fate of the House bill as a whole is still uncertain. Some of the bill’s nuclear weapons provisions as well as some provisions regarding immigration and border security have prompted some House Republicans to say they will refuse to pass it. Likewise, some progressive Democrats are unhappy that the bill does not significantly cut the overall military budget, which totals $733 billion. If those Dems also refuse to vote in favor, it is unclear what will happen next.

The Union of Concerned Scientists supports passage of the House defense authorization bill and hopes that the final version includes the sensible provisions detailed above. The Senate passed its version of the bill in late June, authorizing the full amount requested by the president for nuclear programs and, in some cases, increasing funding.

Assuming that the full House passes its bill, it will be left up to a conference committee, where the four leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will try to work out a compromise version that can be passed by both chambers. Given the fundamental differences between the two versions, that likely will be a difficult task, but national — and international — security hangs in the balance.

Xi’s China Stands with World. Trump’s America Stands Alone.

US and Chinese delegations talk trade in Osaka, Japan.

The presidents of the United States and China met at the G-20 leadership summit in Osaka, Japan to try to put an end to a trade war that’s disrupting the global economy. They walked away with a ceasefire agreement that left everyone uncertain about the future.

Almost all of the other members of the G-20 have serious problems with the way President Xi’s China does business. Yet not a single one of them stood with President Trump. The meeting closed with what they politely called a 19+1 declaration. It would be more accurate to call it a declaration of the 20-1 .

China, the United States and the World

At the end of the last world war political, economic, social, cultural, educational and religious leaders throughout the world committed to a collective effort to avoid another world war. They agreed the best way to do that was to act, to the greatest degree possible, in support of common interests, not only national ones.  Over the decades they established institutions, laws, and common practices to work through the very difficult problems that can arise when powerful national interests are at odds with the common good.

Before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reclaimed China’s seat in the United Nations in 1971—over the objections of the United States, which did everything it could to isolate Communist China from the rest of the world—Xi’s predecessors preached the Marxist-Leninist gospel of global revolution.  They saw the United Nations, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which eventually became the World Trade Organization (WTO), as instruments of US imperialism.  Xi’s China is still unapologetically communist. But today China is not only a member of the world order it once reviled, it is one of its biggest beneficiaries and staunchest defenders.

The United States, on the other hand, is walking away from the world order. It is withdrawing from arms control treaties, disregarding trade rules by leveling tariffs and, most importantly, telling the world it will dump as much carbon into the atmosphere as it pleases. President Trump and the officials he’s hired to represent the United States have proudly proclaimed they’re putting US national interests above the common good. They seem to have decided that most if not all of the international commitments the United States made in the past are bad deals that disadvantage the United States to the benefit of others, especially China.

Who will the rest of the world follow? If it takes after Trump’s America the consensus on avoiding world war by building international institutions and promoting global norms to protect the common interest will collapse. If it doesn’t the world is unlikely to follow a communist China with pressing human rights problems and a strident approach to territorial disputes.  Most of the rest of the world is more likely to continue to press forward as best it can without the United States. This latest meeting of the G-20 was a pretty strong signal that the post-war consensus can hold, and that China intends to help defend it.

Hopefully, President Xi will eventually recognize China needs to compromise more of its national interests to make good on that intention. His commitment to combating climate change is an encouraging sign.  Playing a more prominent role in international nuclear arms control and disarmament would be an excellent next step.

Going Forward

The United States is home to 4.3% of a global population rapidly approaching 7.6 billion. It is true that the US share of the global economy has been shrinking for quite awhile. But that’s not a sign of American decline. To the contrary, it is a reflection of the economic success in the rest of the world that US post-war internationalism intended to create.

The reason so many average Americans seem eager to walk away from the world today is not because US internationalism decreased economic disparities between nations—and in the process made the whole world a lot wealthier—but because it increased economic disparities within nations. The benefits of globalization were not shared equally among social and economic classes across countries. Discontent in China is what led to the rise of Xi Jinping. He won the Communist Party’s top spot with a promise to save the Party by rooting out corruption and rebalancing the economy. Discontent in the United States led to the rise of Donald Trump. He won his office, in part, with a promise to save America from foreigners and the supposedly bad deals his predecessors made with them.

The G-20 declaration presented a comprehensive defense of the post-WWII internationalist consensus and a unambiguous refutation of the new US nationalism. It vowed to keep international markets open and to strengthen the institutions that govern them, especially the WTO. The G-20 would have included a warning against protectionism but sought to avoid widening further its rift with the biggest offender, which isn’t China but the United States.

It also took note of “the important work of the International Panel on Climate Change” and declared the G-20 is “irreversibly” committed to the Paris Agreement. Despite vociferous and time consuming US objections, all of its members, except the United States, “reaffirmed their commitment to its full implementation.”






Trump Opens Door to Renegotiating Controversial Okinawa Base Deal

The Okinawa dugong will be evicted from its island home if the deal on a new military base struck by President Obama proceeds as planned. President Trump suggested he wants to renegotiate it.

Bloomberg News reported that President Trump “regards Japan’s repeated efforts to move a large military base in Okinawa as sort of a land grab and has raised the idea of seeking financial compensation.” The New York real estate mogul said the land the United States military is vacating “could be worth about $10 billion.” He feels it belongs to the United States. It doesn’t.

But that’s exactly how the US military feels about its bases in Okinawa. These sentiments are rooted in the brutal battle to take the island at the end of World War II that cost 12,520 American lives. The US military wanted to keep it indefinitely. Japanese public protests led the government in Tokyo to negotiate the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

The base Trump was talking about is in the heart of a densely populated urban area and continuing to operate it is dangerous for US military personnel and the people living near by. But Obama’s Department of Defense would only agree to close the facility if it got a new one in return. The Japanese national government agreed to build a new base in Okinawa’s Henoko prefecture and pay the construction costs. The land under the old facility would be given back to the people who owned it before the US military appropriated the land in 1945 to build the base.

Outsiders might think the people of Okinawa would be happy. They aren’t. If you lived on the island you might see things their way.  The US military occupies about 18% of the land on the islands that make up Okinawa prefecture.  The land mass of Okinawa is only 0.6% of Japan’s total but it accounts for 74% of all the land occupied by US military bases in Japan. Just over half of all US military personnel in Japan are stationed in Okinawa, which bears a disproportionally heavy share of the cost of the US military presence in Japan.

Trump knows real estate. He’s right when he says the land occupied by the military base would be far more valuable in private hands, where it could be used to develop Okinawa’s economy, which is the poorest, by far, of any region of Japan. Military base-related revenue is a paltry 4.9% of the island’s gross income and provides only 1.4% of the island’s jobs.

Okinawans want the dangerous old base in the middle of the city closed and the land returned. They’d be happy to do the same with all the military bases on the island. The inconveniences of living on a tiny island with an enormous military footprint are too numerous to mention but there is one that deserves particular attention. Generations of Okinawan children have grown up hearing and learning impaired from the constant and literally deafening roar of the military aircraft that take off and land at those bases. The horrible sound of it all also depresses tourism—the mainstay of Okinawa’s economy—on what would otherwise be a tropical paradise.

Okinawans are not only unhappy with Obama’s deal but they’re incredibly angry about the way they were treated. Nobody asked them what they thought should be done.  They don’t think it is fair that Okinawans should be forced to accept the construction of a new base on an island already packed with them.  And Obama could not have picked a worse place to build it. The construction of the new base will destroy one of the most beautiful and biodiverse areas of the island, which contains a precious coral reef that is home to a number of beloved and endangered species.

Obama’s team tried to sell the deal to the local population with the fiction they were just moving the old base from a bad spot to a better one. They didn’t buy it. In a recent referendum on the new construction more than 70% voted to stop it. The current governor, the former governor and a majority of the prefecture’ s elected officials have used every legal means at their disposal to try to stop that base from being built. Elderly villagers laid their bodies down in front of enormous earth moving vehicles to slow the construction down.

One hope for the people of Okinawa is for the US Congress to acknowledge their basic human right to have a say in the matter and pull the plug.  Another is for President Trump to sit down with Okinawa’s Governor Denny Tamaki and cut his own deal.  Tamaki may be open to considering the financial compensation Trump wants in exchange for stopping the construction of a new base more than 70% of his constituents don’t want.