Login/Logout

*
*  

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

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Shannon Bugos

No Progress Toward Extending New START


July/August 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia concluded the latest round of their strategic security dialogue on June 22 without agreeing to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining arms control agreement limiting their nuclear arsenals.

U.S. arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea speaks to the media in Vienna on June 23 after holding talks the day before with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. (Photo: Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)The United States is “leaving all options available” on the future of the treaty, said Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, who led the U.S. delegation at the talks in Vienna, during a June 24 briefing in Brussels.

“We are willing to contemplate an extension of that agreement but only under select circumstances,” he said. Those circumstances include making progress toward a new trilateral arms control agreement that has strong verification measures, covers all nuclear warheads, and involves China, according to Billingslea.

New START will expire in February 2021 unless U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to extend it by up to five years. Russia has repeatedly stated that it is ready to extend the treaty without any preconditions and warned that there is not enough time to negotiate a new agreement to replace it before next February. U.S. allies have also urged the Trump administration to extend the treaty.

Trump administration officials, however, have argued that New START is outdated and are instead prioritizing the pursuit of a broader agreement. (See ACT, May 2019.)

Billingslea characterized the talks with Russia in Vienna as “positive” and said the two sides had agreed to form technical working groups to discuss key issues.

The special envoy said he was hopeful that the working groups would make “sufficient progress” to allow for a second round of talks “at the end of July or maybe beginning of August,” when “China again will be called upon to attend.”

The Wall Street Journal on June 23 quoted an unnamed U.S. official who said that the topics for the working groups would be nuclear warheads, especially Russia’s unconstrained stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, and doctrine; verification; and space systems. But a June 24 report in Kommersant cited Russian officials saying Moscow did not necessarily agree to discuss nuclear warheads.

Asked about the discrepancy, Billingslea replied that he would have “to circle back” on this issue with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who had led the Russia delegation in Vienna.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said at the conclusion of the talks that “the delegations continued discussing the future of arms control, including extending [New START] and maintaining stability and predictability in the context of the termination of the [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, as well as a comprehensive dialogue on resolving international security problems.”

Prior to the start of the June 22 talks, Billingslea tweeted a picture of the table, with some empty seats reserved with Chinese flags. “Vienna talks about to start,” Billingslea said. “China is a no-show…We will proceed with Russia, notwithstanding.”

Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, replied, “What an odd scene… Good luck on the extension of the New START! Wonder how LOW you can go?” The United States and Russia are currently believed to possess about 6,000 total nuclear weapons apiece, while China has roughly 300.

Following the Vienna talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on June 23 that the U.S. placement of Chinese flags at empty seats “is unserious, unprofessional, and unappealing for the U.S. to try getting people’s eyes in this way.”

Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea tweeted this photo of empty seats designated for China at nuclear talks on June 22 in Vienna. Earlier in the month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia.” (Photo: @USArmsControl/Twitter)He also noted the incorrect design of the flags that the United States set on the table. “We hope certain people in the U.S. can do their homework and improve their general knowledge to avoid becoming a laughing stock,” he said.

The Trump administration claims that China is engaged in a secret, crash program to build up its nuclear forces and that future arms control efforts must include Beijing.

China has repeatedly refused to join trilateral talks with the United States and Russia and bilateral talks with the United States. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Billingslea on June 8 invited Beijing to join the talks in Vienna, but the following day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying declined the invitation. “China has repeatedly reiterated that it has no intention of participating in the so-called trilateral arms control negotiations with the United States and Russia,” she said. “This position is very clear.”

Billingslea urged China to reconsider. “Achieving Great Power status requires behaving with Great Power responsibility,” he tweeted on June 9. “No more Great Wall of Secrecy on its nuclear build-up.”

Russia has refused to pressure China to change its position and join the talks. “China should itself decide whether these talks are beneficial for the country,” said Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the United States, on June 20. “We will not force our Chinese friends.”

Antonov also repeated a longtime Russian stance that if China joins arms control talks, then U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom should as well.

Billingslea acknowledged that the U.S. “definition of multilateral might be different, but the principle remains the same.” He claimed that China’s nuclear buildup poses a much greater threat than the French and UK nuclear arsenals.

The Trump administration has yet to put forward a concrete proposal for what it wants arms control with China to achieve or detail what the United States would be willing to put forward as concessions in trilateral talks with Russia and China.

Prior to and following the talks in Vienna, Billingslea touted the support of U.S. allies for the Trump administration’s approach to arms control.

Allies have praised the administration for resuming talks with Russia and seeking to bring China into the arms control process, but they also continue to urge the Trump administration to extend New START by five years.

During the Brussels Forum on June 23, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that he welcomes “Russia and the United States sitting down and talking to each other on arms control” and agrees “that China should be involved.”

Still, he added, “in the absence of any agreement that includes China, I think the right thing will be to extend the existing New START agreement.”

“We should not end up in a situation where we have no agreement whatsoever regulating the number of nuclear weapons in the world,” he said.

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each.

Under its monitoring and verification regime, the treaty allows for short notice, on-site inspections.

As the Trump administration continues to assess whether to extend New START, inspections under the accord have been suspended since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is not clear when such inspections might resume.

 

Prospects remain dim for extending New START or engaging China in nuclear arms control efforts.

U.S. Testing Interest Triggers Backlash


July/August 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration faces widespread opposition, including from members of Congress and nuclear weapons scientists, to the potential restarting of U.S. nuclear weapons testing.

Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, visited the Nevada Test Site in 2015, where structures remain from a planned, but never conducted nuclear test, in 1992. In May, Zerbo urged all countries to refrain from restarting any nuclear testing. (Photo: Lassina Zerbo Twitter)The Washington Post reported on May 22 that the Trump administration weighed whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion during a May 15 meeting with national security agencies. (See ACT, May 2020.) The administration reportedly believes that a nuclear test would help prod Russia and China into negotiating a new trilateral arms control deal.

During a June 24 press briefing in Brussels, Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, said, “[W]e maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see reason to do so,” but that he is “not aware of any reason to test at this stage.” Nevertheless, “I won’t shut the door on it because why would we?”

The United States conducted a total of 1,030 nuclear tests, with more than 900 of them performed at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, until President George H.W. Bush declared a moratorium on U.S. nuclear testing in 1992. According to U.S. nuclear test readiness guidelines, a “simple test” with limited instrumentation could be conducted at the former site within six to 10 months if the president decides to resume nuclear testing.

“With no stated justification to resume testing, we unequivocally oppose any administration’s efforts to resume explosive nuclear testing in Nevada,” said Nevada Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen on June 12. They were joined by the state’s Democratic Reps. Dina Titus, Steven Horsford, and Susie Lee.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced an amendment to the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) calling for $10 million for the administration to execute a nuclear weapons test “if necessary.” The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the amendment June 10 along a party-line vote, but whether it will be included in the final bill remains unclear.

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) joined the Nevada delegation in criticizing any resumption of nuclear testing and introduced legislation that would deny the administration any funds to conduct a nuclear test.

“A return to U.S. nuclear testing would dishonor the lessons from the Cold War and expose a whole new generation of Americans to the horrors of radiation sickness,” said Markey when introducing the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act on June 4. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and 13 other senators co-sponsored the legislation.

Titus and Horsford introduced a companion bill to the PLANET Act in the House on June 8.

“Resuming nuclear testing would open a door to allow other nations to openly conduct nuclear test explosions while imposing immense financial and health costs on the American people,” said Horsford.

On July 1, Cortez Masto introduced legislation and an NDAA amendment, along with five other senators, to require a joint resolution of approval for the United States to conduct an explosive nuclear weapons test. The passage of the joint resolution would need a two-thirds affirmative vote in the Senate. “The decision to conduct an explosive nuclear test should not be made without congressional approval, and should never be made by a president hoping to gain political points,” said Cortez Masto.

Condemnations also came from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). “It is unfathomable that the administration is considering something so short-sighted and dangerous,” they wrote in a June 8 letter to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) spearheaded a bicameral letter of 80 members of Congress to President Donald Trump warning against the resumption of U.S. nuclear weapons testing.

“A return to nuclear testing is not only scientifically and technically unnecessary but also dangerously provocative.... It would needlessly antagonize important allies, cause other countries to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and prompt adversaries to respond in kind—risking a new nuclear arms race and further undermining the global nonproliferation regime,” they wrote on June 8.

Meanwhile, a group of 12 former scientists with nuclear weapons expertise signed a June 16 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), saying, “We strongly oppose the resumption of explosive testing of U.S. nuclear weapons. There is no technical need for a nuclear test.”

The Trump administration has faced international condemnation as well, with Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo saying on May 28 that “any actions or activities by any country that violate the international norm against nuclear testing would constitute a grave challenge to the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime, as well as to global peace and security more broadly.”

The Russian and Chinese foreign ministries also condemned the Trump administration for contemplating a resumption of nuclear testing.

“This bombshell,” said a Russian statement, demonstrates “a U.S. campaign against international law.” Russia ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 2000.

 

U.S. lawmakers and international officials have criticized the Trump administration’s consideration of restarting nuclear testing.

Critics Question U.S. Open Skies Complaints


July/August 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision in May to abandon the Open Skies Treaty, and amid uncertainty about the future of the 34-nation accord, critics are disputing the administration’s rationale for withdrawal.

Swedish soldiers guard a Russian aircraft preparing to conduct an Open Skies Treaty observation flight over Sweden in 2000. (Photo: OSCE)U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that “Russia’s implementation and violation of Open Skies” has negated the “central confidence-building function of the treaty—and has, in fact, fueled distrust and threats to our national security—making continued U.S. participation untenable.”

Specifically, Pompeo cited Russian restrictions on observation flights over Russian territory and alleged that Moscow “appears” to use treaty flights “in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions.”

Members of Congress, former government officials, U.S. allies, and Russia have said that these arguments are based on tendentious reasoning, beset by contradictions, and ignore positive benefits the treaty continues to provide. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Meanwhile, the fate of the treaty is in limbo. Several European treaty parties have said they plan to continue implementing the agreement, while Russia has not specified how it plans to proceed.

To further complicate matters, flights under the treaty have been suspended since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it is unclear when they will resume.

Signed in 1992, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

The Trump administration alleges that Russian limitations on flights over the Kaliningrad enclave and territory bordering Abkhazia and South Ossetia violate the treaty. Critics argue that the breaches do not defeat the object and purpose of the agreement and are resolvable through diplomacy.

The Kaliningrad issue focuses on Moscow’s demand to limit Open Skies missions over the enclave to less than 500 kilometers in total flight distance. The requirement followed a 2014 overflight by Poland that, according to a May 26 Russian Foreign Ministry paper, crossed “back and forth, thereby creating problems for the use of the region’s limited airspace and for the operation of the region’s only international airport” and “entailed serious financial costs.” Russia maintains that the 500-kilometer limit was “established in line with [Open Skies Treaty] provisions.”

In 2016, the United States responded to the sublimit by restricting flights over the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and the missile defense interceptor fields in Fort Greely, Alaska.

The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that whereas Western countries can still capture “from 77 to 98 percent of the territory” of Kaliningrad in an observation flight, Russia can observe “just 2.7 percent in Alaska.”

In February 2020, Russia allowed a flight over Kaliningrad by the United States, Estonia, and Lithuania that exceeded the 500-kilometer limit. On March 2, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe James Gilmore described the flight as “very cooperative.”

Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, acknowledged in a May 21 briefing that Russia permitted “a very slightly longer flight” over Kaliningrad but argued that the flight “doesn’t undermine the basic point that Russia clearly regards its Open Skies legal obligations as something akin more to guidelines or options for them.”

United States additionally asserts that Moscow not only violates a crucial clause of the treaty but also uses the clause to make a political claim with respect to Georgia.

Under the Open Skies Treaty, states-parties must open all of their territory to overflights, although Article VI prohibits flights within 10 kilometers of borders with countries that are not states-parties.

Russia is one of only a handful of countries that recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent from Georgia. As a result, Moscow has prohibited treaty flights within 10-kilometers of its border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as they are not states-parties to the Open Skies Treaty.

The Russian Foreign Ministry argues that “it is possible to reliably obtain images of these zones without flying over them” and that Georgia, a treaty party, is in violation of the accord by prohibiting Russian flights over Georgia.

In a June 22 letter to Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper criticizing the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the treaty, Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) write that “instead of withdrawing from the treaty, the United States should diplomatically engage Russia to resolve these issues as it has done successfully in the past, for example when Russian imposed limitations on flights over Chechnya.”

As for the allegation that Russia is misusing treaty flights over the United States to collect military-relevant intelligence, Ford said that he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.”

“[W]hile not a violation per se,” he added, “it’s clearly something that is deeply corrosive to the cause of building confidence and trust.”

There appears to be disagreement among military officials about how useful Russian flights are for intelligence gathering.

Vice Admiral Terry Benedict, the former head of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Program, told a Congressional hearing in 2016 that “the information Russia gleans from Open Skies is of only incremental value in addition to Russia’s other means of intelligence gathering.”

The treaty includes provisions that dictate the standards for equipment, including cameras and planes, used during a flight. No equipment is used that is not previously authorized by the states-parties.

Under the treaty, states-parties seeking to conduct an overflight must supply their flight plan at least 24 hours in advance to the host country. The host country then reviews the plan and can raise any concerns about safety or weather. When the flight does take off, there are also representatives of the host country on the plane alongside the observing states-parties to ensure all goes according to plan. All images taken on the flight must then be shared with the other parties to the agreement.

In addition to arguing that Russia is using the treaty to gather intelligence, the Trump administration and other opponents of the agreement also maintain that the treaty has outlived its usefulness and is based on outdated technology.

“[T]echnology has passed by the world of wet film and antiquated aircraft,” Marshall Billingslea, the president’s special envoy for arms control said on May 21. “You can download commercial imagery today in a matter of seconds that really meets the original intent of confidence-building measures in Europe.”

Critics argue that the administration cannot have it both ways. If the treaty is antiquated and replaceable by higher-resolution commercial satellite images, how is Russia using it to capture irreplaceable images of critical U.S. infrastructure?

Russia has responded to the U.S. allegation that it is misusing the treaty by stating that the United States, when flying over Russia, “film[s] not only parks and beaches.” Since the treaty entered into force, the United States has flown over Russia about three times more frequently than Russia has flown over the United States.

A former senior official told Arms Control Today that the United States and its allies have made use of treaty flights “to track infrastructure that it’s otherwise hard to photograph in a single satellite pass.” This includes imagery of Russian rail lines, “which has helped us to understand more about military transport potential, including for nuclear warheads.” The official said the United States has also used the treaty “to help preview inspection sites for…nuclear treaties,” such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and to photograph Russia’s nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya.

The Trump administration has told allies that it is exploring options to provide more imagery products to them to address any gaps that might result from the U.S. withdrawal. Many treaty members, including the Baltic states, do not have their own aircraft with which to conduct flights.

But sharing such sensitive imagery may be easier said than done.

Pranay Vaddi, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official, tweeted on May 28 that it takes time to downgrade sensitive images and then coordinate with allies that might have different domestic procedures for handling such information.

He added that “commercial imagery will be contested as if it's [intelligence] information” and “be called unofficial, doctored, biased, etc.”

Pompeo noted in his May 21 statement that the administration might reconsider the treaty withdrawal decision “if Russia demonstrates a return to full compliance with this confidence-building treaty.” Most observers believe, however, that there is little hope the United States will return to the treaty given the wide-ranging reasons the administration has given for its decision to leave.

According to Article XV of the treaty, no more than two months after a state-party decides to withdraw, a conference of the states-parties must take place so as “to consider the effect of the withdrawal on this Treaty.” Canada and Hungary, the depositaries of the treaty, have scheduled this meeting, to be conducted by remote communication, for July 6.

Many allies have expressed regret about the U.S. decision and indicated that they will continue to implement the accord as they still view it as “functioning and useful.” (See ACT, May 2020.)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on June 23 that “we will see the reaction of our Western colleagues during this conference, what Europe thinks about it.”

“We don’t rule out any options of our actions,” he added.

Trump administration justifications for withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty are being challenged from many sides.

Russia Releases Nuclear Deterrence Policy


July/August 2020
By Shannon Bugos

Russia publicly expanded on the circumstances under which it might employ nuclear weapons in a policy document on nuclear deterrence signed by President Vladimir Putin on June 2.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) attend a June 24 Victory Day parade in Moscow to mark the 75th anniversary of defeating Germany in World War II. Three weeks earlier, Putin signed a new document outlining Russia's nuclear deterrence policies. (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)The 2020 document, called “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence,” marks the first time Russia has consolidated and publicly released its nuclear deterrence policy, which previously was classified.

The document presents four scenarios that might warrant nuclear use, two of which did not appear in the 2014, 2010, and 2000 versions of Russia’s military doctrine. (See ACT, March 2010; January/February 2000.)

As stated in the two most recent versions of the military doctrine, two of the scenarios in which Russia “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons” include when Moscow is acting “in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” The 2000 military doctrine differed slightly in its description of the latter scenario, as it instead allowed nuclear use in response to conventional attacks in “situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation.”

The two additional scenarios contained in the 2020 document include an “arrival [of] reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies” or an “attack by [an] adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions.”

The two new scenarios had not yet been included in formal policy, but other documents or statements by government officials, including Putin, have hinted at their inclusion, said Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at International Crisis Group, in a June 4 analysis.

Divided into four sections, the document leads with how Russia defines its state policy on nuclear deterrence, which it calls “defensive by nature.” The goal of deterrence is “to prevent aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies.”

The document does not explicitly name Russia’s allies and adversaries, but the second section does broadly define adversaries, stating that Russia implements its deterrence “with regard to individual states and military coalitions (blocs, alliances) that consider the Russian Federation as a potential adversary and that possess nuclear weapons and/or other types of weapons of mass destruction, or significant combat potential of general purpose forces.” This definition would include the United States and alliances such as NATO.

The second section of the document further defines Russia’s definition of nuclear deterrence as signaling to adversaries “the inevitability of retaliation in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies.” It also describes military risks presented by adversaries that deterrence is designed to “neutralize,” such as the deployments of medium- and shorter-range cruise and ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons, and missile defense systems. The document does not say how Russia would move to neutralize any of these risks should they elevate to “threats of aggression.”

This section additionally details what Moscow views as “the principles of nuclear deterrence,” to include compliance with arms control agreements, unpredictability for an adversary as to Russian employment of its means of deterrence, and readiness of its forces for use.

The third section covers the four scenarios in which Russia might use nuclear weapons.

The fourth and final section notes the roles of the government and related agencies, including the Security Council and Defense Ministry, in implementing Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy. The document maintains that the Russian president makes the decision to use nuclear weapons.

The document does not explicitly address Russia’s purported willingness to use or threaten to use its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in a conventional conflict or crisis initiated by Russia, a strategy known as “escalate to deescalate.” (See ACT, March 2018.) But, as Oliker points out, “hard[-]core believers” in this strategy may point to the document’s statement that Moscow’s nuclear deterrence policy “provides for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies.”

Oliker instead suggests an interpretation that Russia will not use nuclear weapons “for simple battlefield advantage.” But if Russia decides to use nuclear weapons, it “will do so intending to prevent further escalation and end the conflict as favorably (or acceptably) as possible for itself.”

Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and former Russian Foreign Ministry official, said in a June 3 analysis of the deterrence policy that the document has a deescalation strategy but emphasizes deterrence and views deescalation more as a means of preventing rather than waging war.

Following the publication of the signed document, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on June 3 that “Russia can never and will never initiate” the use of nuclear weapons.

Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, responded to Peskov on June 11, tweeting, “Where is this reflected in the new doctrine?”

Russia publicly releases its nuclear deterrence policy for the first time.

U.S. Continues Stalling on New START | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, June 26, 2020

U.S. Continues Stalling on New START The United States and Russia concluded the latest round of their strategic security dialogue June 22 without agreeing to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), the last remaining arms control agreement limiting their nuclear arsenals. The United States is “leaving all options available” on the future of the treaty, said Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea, who led the U.S. delegation at the talks in Vienna, during a June 24 briefing in Brussels. “We are willing to contemplate an extension of that agreement but...

Reaction to White House Nuclear Testing Proposal Strongly Negative

Sections:

Body: 


Volume 12, Issue 4, June 16, 2020

The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992 when a bipartisan congressional majority approved legislation mandating a nine-month nuclear test moratorium. The following year, President Bill Clinton extended the moratorium and launched multilateral negotiations on a global test ban. In 1996, the United States was the first to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which verifiably prohibits all nuclear test explosions of any yield.

Today, the CTBT has 184 signatories but has not formally entered into force due to the failure of the United States, China, and six other hold-out states to ratify the pact. Nevertheless, the treaty has established a global taboo against all nuclear testing. North Korea is the only country believed to have conducted nuclear tests in this century.

Now, the Trump administration is weighing whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion for political signaling purposes. According to a May 22 report by The Washington Post, senior national security officials discussed the option of a demonstration nuclear blast at a May 15 interagency meeting. A senior administration official told The Post that a “rapid test” by the United States could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as the Trump administration seeks an arms control agreement with Russia and China.

Making matters worse, in a party-line vote June 11, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to authorize $10 million to execute a nuclear test if necessary. Such a test could be conducted in a matter of a few months underground at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas.

In reality, the first U.S. nuclear test blast in 28 years would do nothing to rein in Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals or improve the environment for negotiations. Rather, it would raise tensions and probably trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other nuclear actors, leading to an all-out global arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.

On June 4, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation that would restrict funds for fiscal year 2021 and all previous years from being used for resuming nuclear weapons testing. Markey’s bill, named the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act, was cosponsored by 14 senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Reps. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) introduced companion legislation in the House June 8.

As Congress now works on the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, members should include a provision that prohibits any funding for a U.S. nuclear test.

The following are excerpts from the growing number of statements against a resumption of U.S. nuclear weapons testing, as well as some additional resources. —SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant

Statements Against Resumption of Nuclear Testing
*updated June 17, 2020

“The United States not only has conducted the largest number of nuclear tests by any country, it also has built over the last 25 years an expansive science-based stewardship program to sustain the reliability and safety of the nuclear weapons stockpile without testing. This is to our advantage. A return to testing by nuclear weapons states, and increased risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons capability to others, would negate this advantage and undermine U.S. and global security.”

—Ernest J. Moniz, former Secretary of Energy, and Sam Nunn, former U.S. Senator (D-Ga.), May 27, 2020

“The possibility that the Trump administration may resume nuclear explosive weapons testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous. We have not tested a device since 1992; we don’t need to do so now … The Administration reportedly believes a test will help compel Russia or China to come to the negotiating table on a new arms control agreement. This is delusional. A resumption of testing is more likely to prompt other countries to resume militarily significant nuclear testing and undermine our nuclear nonproliferation goals.”

—Joseph Biden, former U.S. vice president, May 28, 2020

“... a U.S. nuclear test would most likely have a very different effect: opening the door for tests by other countries to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons. A smarter policy would maintain the current moratorium on nuclear testing and ratify and seek to bring into force the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

—Amb. Steven Pifer, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia on the National Security Council, May 28, 2020

“In general, any actions or activities by any country that violate the international norm against nuclear testing, as underpinned by the CTBT, would constitute a grave challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, as well as to global peace and security more broadly.”

—Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, May 28, 2020

“Not only could this kick off a new arms race, but other countries would have far more to gain from nuclear testing than the United States. We do not need to resume nuclear testing to ensure the reliability of our nuclear arsenal. Doing so would be expensive and further strain an already over-taxed Energy Department nuclear enterprise.

“Nuclear testing has also killed or sickened thousands of military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well as civilians who lived on or downrange from the testing sites. These impacted communities are still dealing with the devastating legacy of nuclear testing decades after the U.S. conducted its last nuclear test. A decision to resume U.S. nuclear testing would dishonor their experiences.”

—Letter to Congress from 24 nuclear arms control, environmental, and peace organizations, May 28, 2020

“No. Hell no. Not now. Not ever. Nevada will not be subjected to nuclear bombing again.”

—Editorial Board, Las Vegas Sun, May 31, 2020

“An American test would likely be answered by Russian and Chinese tests, and perhaps by others. Although the United States, Russia, and China have mature arsenals and don’t need the tests to improve design, other countries like India, Pakistan, and North Korea would see an American test as an excuse to improve their designs to fit on smaller missiles. Worst of all would be the signal that the United States is willing to break treaties and brandish the world’s most destructive weapons for political means.”

—Cheryl Rofer, former chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, May 2020

“Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, a resumption of testing is both unjustified and destabilizing, and opens the door to an expensive arms race. We staunchly oppose resurrecting the era of worldwide nuclear testing, especially in light of the unnecessary risks such actions would pose to the American people. The decision to resume nuclear testing is not one that should be taken lightly.”

—Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation Subcommittee, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and 23 other members, June 5, 2020

“A return to nuclear testing is not only scientifically and technically unnecessary but also dangerously provocative. It would signal to the world that the U.S. no longer has confidence in the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear weapons. It would needlessly antagonize important allies, cause other countries to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and prompt adversaries to respond in kind—risking a new nuclear arms race and further undermining the global nonproliferation regime. None of these developments would improve America’s national security or strengthen its position in the world.”

—Letter from U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-Ill.), U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and a bicameral group of 80 other colleagues urging President Trump not to resume explosive nuclear testing, June 8, 2020

“It is unfathomable that the administration is considering something so short-sighted and dangerous, and that directly contradicts its own 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which this administration often cites as inviolable, makes clear that ‘the United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.’”

—Letter to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Defense Secretary Mark Esper from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.); Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.); Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces; Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water; and Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, June 8, 2020

“We have seen firsthand how nuclear weapons testing puts Americans at greater risk for cancer and hurts our livelihoods. This administration should not use our lives as a bargaining chip for a last-ditch attempt at a trilateral arms-control deal with unwilling parties.”

—Jennifer Seelig, former Utah House Minority Leader (D), and Ryan Wilcox, former Utah State Representative (R), June 8, 2020

 “Such [nuclear] tests would bring no military or strategic benefit to the United States. Instead, they would undermine the foundational global agreement that has curbed the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide for more than 50 years, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

—Amb. Thomas Graham, former U.S. special representative for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, June 10, 2020

Resuming nuclear testing “is not necessary to ensure the continued reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It could also increase threats to U.S. and allied security by giving a green light to other countries, including dangerous proliferators, to conduct nuclear tests of their own…There is no technical reason to resume testing now. The Stockpile Stewardship Program works extraordinarily well in ensuring the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

—William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, and Frank Klotz, former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, June 10, 2020

“With no stated justification to resume testing, we unequivocally oppose any Administration’s efforts to resume explosive nuclear testing in Nevada. Not only would such an action compromise the health and safety of Nevadans, degrade vital water resources, and harm the surrounding environment, but it would also undermine future stockpile stewardship efforts, undercut our nuclear nonproliferation goals, and further weaken strategic partnerships with our global allies.”

—Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), and Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), June 12, 2020

“As scientists with expertise on nuclear weapons issues, including many with long involvement in the US nuclear weapons program, we strongly oppose the resumption of explosive testing of US nuclear weapons. There is no technical need for a nuclear test. Indeed, statements attributed to administration officials suggest the motivation is that a nuclear explosive test would provide leverage in future nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia and China. ”

—12 former nuclear weapons scientists in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, June 16, 2020

Additional Resources

Description: 

The Trump administration is weighing whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion as a negotiating standpoint as it seeks an arms control agreement with Russia and China. Making matters worse, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to authorize $10 million to execute a nuclear test if necessary.

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:

Trump Administration Debates Resuming Nuclear Testing

The Trump administration reportedly weighed whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion during a May 15 meeting with national security agencies. The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992, and no other nuclear-armed country besides North Korea has conducted such a test since 1998. If the United States chooses to conduct a nuclear test, it would undoubtedly invite other nuclear-armed countries to do the same and launch a new nuclear arms race. The Washington Post first reported on this meeting on May 22. The administration did not make a final decision, with a senior...

U.S. to Withdraw From Open Skies Treaty


June 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States officially notified its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, prompting bipartisan opposition in Congress and expressions of regret from U.S. allies.

Danish F-16 fighter aircraft escort a Russian observation aircraft during a flight over Denmark in 20008. (Photo: OSCE)President Donald Trump justified the withdrawal decision on the grounds that Russia was violating the agreement, but he said, “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that the withdrawal will take effect in six months. “We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty,” Pompeo added.

Pompeo cited Russian noncompliance with the accord as “making continued U.S. participation untenable.” The United States asserts that Russia has violated the agreement by requiring that observation missions over Kaliningrad limit flight paths to 500 kilometers, establishing a 10-kilometer no-fly corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and denying a requested overflight by the United States and Canada in September 2019.

Pompeo also alleged that “Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions.”

Pressed to provide further information on this allegation on May 21, Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.” He then added, “[W]hile not a violation per se, it’s clearly something that is deeply corrosive to the cause of building confidence and trust.”

Asked about what Russia would need to do in order to return to compliance with the treaty, Ford said, “I would say that that’s a fact pattern we’ll have to deal with when we encounter it.”

The Defense Department said in a statement that “we will explore options to provide additional imagery products to Allies to mitigate any gaps that may result from this withdrawal.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. exit from the agreement in a May 22 statement, calling it “a deplorable development for European security.”

On the U.S. allegation that Russia is using the treaty to gather inappropriate intelligence, the statement said the “charge is being made by the party that insisted from the beginning on opening the entire territory of the participating states (above all, naturally, the [Soviet Union] and later Russia) to observation flights.”

The statement added that Russia’s future participation in the treaty “will be based on its national security interests and in close cooperation with its allies and partners.”

U.S. allies expressed varied responses to the U.S. exit from the treaty, but none of them signaled support for the move or indicated that they plan to follow the United States out of the agreement.

In a joint statement, 11 European countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) expressed “regret” over the U.S. decision.

“We will continue to implement the Open Skies Treaty, which has a clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security,” they said. “We reaffirm that this treaty remains functioning and useful.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia to return to compliance with the treaty after a May 22 meeting of the North Atlantic Council. He said that the United States withdrew in a manner “consistent with treaty provisions.”

Poland said in a statement that efforts to return Russia to compliance “have proved unsuccessful.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Germany, along with France, Poland, and the United Kingdom, had previously told Washington that Russian noncompliance concerns did not justify a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.

Prior to the U.S. decision to withdraw, the Trump administration consulted U.S. allies and other states-parties to the treaty, including by distributing a written questionnaire earlier this year. Throughout the process, allies expressed their support for continued U.S. participation in the treaty. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Several Democratic and Republican members of Congress excoriated the withdrawal decision and accused the administration of breaking the law.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, called the Trump administration's move to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty a "dangerous and misguided decision."(Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images)“The dangerous and misguided decision to abandon this international agreement cripples our ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia, while allowing Russian reconnaissance flights over U.S. bases in Europe to continue,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) first sounded the alarm about the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw the United States from the treaty last October. (See ACT, November 2019.) Reacting to the withdrawal announcement, he said that “the president’s reckless plan…directly harms our country’s security and breaks the law in the process.”

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required that the Trump administration notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which it failed to do. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that he does “not accept the legitimacy of the administration’s reckless decision.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the committee’s strategic forces subcommittee, echoed the legal concerns and called the withdrawal “a slap in the face to our allies in Europe.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents Offutt Air Force Base, where America’s OC-135B treaty aircraft are based, called the administration’s decision a “mistake.” He also urged that the administration adhere to the requirements in the defense authorization bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a longtime treaty critic, voiced support for the withdrawal. He said that he was “particularly heartened” that the United States would now not have to fund the replacement efforts for the two treaty aircraft.

Congress appropriated $41.5 million last year to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. All imagery collected from overflights is then made available to any of the 34 states-parties.

Since 2002, there have been nearly 200 U.S. overflights of Russia and about 70 overflights conducted by Russia over the United States. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 1,500 flights took place.

 

Citing Russian noncompliance, the Trump administration has triggered the Open Skies Treaty’s withdrawal provision.

U.S., Russia to Meet on Arms Control


June 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia have agreed to discuss nuclear arms control issues, according to U.S. President Donald Trump’s arms control envoy following a May 8 phone call.

Marshall Billingslea, shown speaking in Latvia in 2019, has been tapped to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He outlined the Trump administration's plans at a May event at the Hudson Institute.  (Photo: Latvian State Chancellery)Marshall Billingslea, whom Trump also has nominated to serve as U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov agreed “to meet, talk about our respective concerns and objectives, and find a way forward to begin negotiations” on a new arms control agreement.

“So, we have settled on a venue, and we are working on an agenda based on the exchange of views that has taken place,” he said.

Billingslea described the conversation during May 21 remarks at a Hudson Institute event in Washington, where he also criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and sketched out some of the Trump administration’s goals for a new trilateral agreement with Russia and China.

New START expires in February 2021 unless Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to extend it by up to five years. Russia stated in December 2019 that it is ready to extend New START without any preconditions, but the Trump administration has yet to make a decision on the treaty’s fate.

“Any potential extension of our existing obligations must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control,” Billingslea emphasized on May 21. Earlier, in a May 7 interview with The Washington Times, he also stated that the administration wants “to understand why the Russians are so desperate for extension, and we want the Russians to explain to us why this is in our interest to do it.”

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. Under its monitoring and verification regime, the treaty allows for short notice, on-site inspections.

Billingslea views the agreement as flawed. “One main failing of New START, among the many problems with it, is that it does not include the Chinese,” he told the newspaper.

Bringing China into nuclear talks would appear to be a challenging task, particularly as China has repeatedly stated that it wants no part in them. Most recently, a Chinese spokesperson told reporters on May 15 that Beijing “has no intention to take part in a trilateral arms control negotiation.” Even Billingslea’s State Department predecessor, Andrea Thompson, said on May 14 “that China’s not going to come to the table before” New START expires next February. “There’s no incentive for them to come to the table,” she said, citing China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.

But Billingslea insisted that Beijing could be incentivized to negotiate.

“If China wants to be a great power, and we know it has that self-image, it needs to behave like one,” he said May 21. “It should engage us bilaterally and trilaterally with the Russians.”

Billingslea added that “Russia must help bring China to the negotiating table.” Moscow previously said that it
will not try to persuade China to change its position.

He further asserted that the United States would hold Russia to its “public commitments to multilateralizing the next treaty after New START.” Moscow has long said that a future arms control agreement should include additional nuclear-armed states, including U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom.

A new agreement also must include Russia’s large arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and stronger verification measures than those contained in New START, Billingslea argued.

Billingslea did not say what the United States might be prepared to put on the table in return for limits on additional Russian weapons or concessions from China, nor did he clarify what precisely the administration is seeking from China on arms control.

Russia has frequently raised missile defense as an issue that must be on the table in the next round of arms control talks, but the special envoy said that he did not foresee the United States agreeing to limitations on missile defense.

Billingslea claimed that the United States is in a strong negotiating position and could win a new arms race if necessary.

“We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said. “If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

Russia criticized Billingslea’s May 7 interview with The Washington Times. “The unmistakable impression” is that Billingslea “has not been brought up to speed on his new job,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on May 14.

She also noted that the Trump administration’s desire to include China in arms control talks was “far-fetched.”

Trump and Putin discussed arms control on a May 7 phone call.

“President Trump reaffirmed that the United States is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to future discussions to avoid a costly arms race,” said the White House in a statement following the call. The statement made no mention of New START.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the two presidents agreed to work to resolve “the urgent problems of our time, including maintaining strategic stability.”

The United States and Russia last held formal talks on strategic security in January. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said on May 5 that Trump had agreed to Russia’s January proposal that the heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) hold a summit to discuss a broad range of security topics, including arms control.

“It’s my understanding that the substance and logistics of such a meeting are under consideration,” said Sullivan.

On April 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that all parties agreed that the summit “must be face to face.” He added two days later that “the conceptual content” of the summit is in the works.

“There is agreement, an understanding,” Lavrov said, “that it should be devoted to all the key problems of the modern world, strategic stability, and global security in all its dimensions.”

In Washington, Billingslea could be facing a controversial Senate confirmation process before he can officially assume the position to which Trump named him on May 1. Some senators are likely to question his reputation as a critic of arms control and to examine his human rights record. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing.

Billingslea previously served as assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. He was an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed U.S. ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In 2019, Trump nominated Billingslea for the top human rights post at the State Department, but his nomination stalled in early 2020 amid concerns about his role in promoting enhanced interrogation techniques that Congress later banned as torture while serving in the Pentagon from 2002 to 2003 during the George W. Bush administration.

 

Officials have agreed on a venue to discuss arms control, but not an agenda.

GAO Seeks Light on Nuclear Cooperation Talks


June 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The U.S. State Department may not have notified Congress regularly about its efforts to negotiate a nuclear energy cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, raising questions about whether the Trump administration has been as transparent as required, according an April report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry speaks in Washington in November 2019, shortly before he left office. Two months earlier, Perry sent a letter to Saudi energy officials demanding that the nation agree to abstain from nuclear fuel cycle activities in exchange for receiving U.S. technical cooperation.  (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)“State officials stated that they consistently provide information to Congress, but the limited information they provided to us does not support this position,” the GAO report said.

The 1954 Atomic Energy Act (AEA) requires that the State Department, the lead agency for negotiating nuclear cooperation agreements, with assistance from the Energy Department, keep Congress “fully and currently informed of any initiative or negotiations” for those agreements. The GAO report stated that it is “unclear” whether the relevant agencies have done so in the case of Saudi Arabia.

The GAO determined that formal negotiations on a 123 agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia took place in 2012 and March 2018. Named after the section of the AEA requiring it, a 123 agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear energy technology, equipment, and materials with other countries.

The auditors identified eight further interactions in which the two countries discussed nuclear cooperation and another five interactions in which a discussion was likely. These additional interactions include bilateral meetings in Washington and Riyadh throughout 2018 and 2019 and a September 2019 letter from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry to his Saudi counterpart, parts of which Bloomberg reported on at the time. (See ACT, October 2019.)

The GAO requested information from the State and Energy departments, as well as the National Security Council and National Nuclear Security Administration. But the report stated that, “[o]verall, the agencies provided us with limited information in response to some categories we requested and did not provide information in other categories.” Furthermore, the exact roles played by these various agencies in the U.S.-Saudi negotiations “remain unclear” because the GAO did not receive “information to clarify or corroborate such roles.”

Saudi Arabia solicited bids in 2017 from companies in China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the United States for its first two nuclear power reactors, but the kingdom has yet to award a contract. Riyadh plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. (See ACT, April 2018.)

When contacted by the GAO for information specifically on dates or details of congressional briefings on U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation negotiations, the Energy Department did not respond, and only after reviewing a draft of the GAO report in January 2020 did the State Department provide a list of briefings more broadly on U.S. nuclear cooperation initiatives since 2013. Still, “State officials declined to discuss the details of any congressional briefings” with the GAO, leaving the office unable to “establish the extent and substance of information the agencies provided to Congress on U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation negotiations.”

Of the information that was provided to the GAO, neither the State nor Energy departments “provided documentation within the time frame of our review to support” their claims that they kept Congress informed of U.S.-Saudi negotiations. In order to receive any information, current and former congressional staff interviewed by the GAO said that they learned of developments in the negotiations from the media or representatives of the nuclear industry. One former congressional staff committee member told the GAO that, “since late 2017, the agencies have only provided information to Congress about the negotiations in response to forceful measures, such as holds on nominations or legislation.”

The GAO said that U.S.-Saudi negotiations on a nuclear cooperation agreement have stalled due to two main unresolved issues.

First, Saudi Arabia has not agreed to sign an additional protocol to its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement. A party to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Riyadh has had a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA since 2009, but has not signed an additional protocol, which provides the IAEA with a broader range of information on nuclear and nuclear-related activities. The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that countries that want to sign a 123 agreement with the United States must first sign and implement an additional protocol.

Second, Saudi Arabia has not agreed to U.S. demands to refrain from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, politically and militarily sensitive activities that can be used to make nuclear weapons. (See ACT, December 2019.) The report also said that the United States might be “willing to accept a temporary restriction on enrichment and reprocessing in its negotiations with Saudi Arabia.”

In addition, the GAO report stated that Saudi Arabia has been resisting nonproliferation conditions required by the AEA, which lists a total of nine nonproliferation conditions in Section 123. Although “Saudi officials accepted ‘the vast majority’ of the conditions” in the 2012 negotiations, the report said, the areas of disagreement from 2012 “remained unresolved as of January 2020.”

The GAO report ultimately recommends that Congress eliminate broad interpretations of the AEA’s requirement to keep Congress fully informed by amending the act to “require regularly scheduled briefings, for instance, on a quarterly basis, and specify expectations for the content of such briefings” on nuclear cooperation initiatives and negotiations. The report also recommends that the secretary of state commit to holding those regularly scheduled, substantive congressional briefings.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) requested this GAO report in March 2019. Following the report’s release, the senators said that “it is clear Congress must reassert its critical role in reviewing nuclear cooperation agreements to ensure these agreements do not pose an unnecessary risk to the United States.”

The Government Accountability Office reports that the Trump administration has failed to provide Congress with regular information.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Shannon Bugos