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– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
United States

The Arduous Path to Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal

April 2021
By Naysan Rafati

A change in U.S. administrations brought with it something rare in the often-acrimonious relationship between Washington and Tehran: a point of agreement. Nearly three years after President Donald Trump unilaterally exited the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), both sides concur on the need to restore core elements of the deal that have been sorely tested since: strict restrictions on and rigorous monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Yet, the shared strategic imperative of full mutual compliance remains out of reach so long as a tactical deadlock continues on how to achieve it.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell give a press conference ahead of their meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels, March 24. (Photo by Olivier Hoslet/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)An explanation of the convergence of U.S. and Iranian interest in reviving the 2015 agreement begins with a stocktaking of the state of play inherited by President Joe Biden in January 2021. Under Trump, the United States abandoned the JCPOA in favor of a “maximum pressure” strategy defined by a sweeping deployment of unilateral sanctions and a broad set of accompanying demands on further restricting Iran’s nuclear activity, halting its ballistic missile development, and containing its regional influence.1 The financial impact on Iran has been substantial, with the World Bank describing U.S. sanctions, along with the more recent global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on energy markets, as a “triple shock” on the country’s economy.2

If the Trump administration had hoped Tehran would bend to its will, however, it was mistaken. In mid-2019, Tehran launched a counterstrategy, dubbed “maximum resistance.” Rather than concede to the administration’s demands and to demonstrate that what it viewed as tantamount to an economic siege would not go unanswered, Iran retaliated against the United States and its regional allies directly and through local proxies in places such as Iraq and the Persian Gulf. It also methodically breached its own obligations under the JCPOA on the contention that the evaporation of the financial benefits the deal had promised justified a reduction in its own compliance.

The cumulative impact of Iran’s JCPOA violations, which have escalated in line with a law the Iranian Parliament passed in December 2020 after the killing of a top nuclear scientist, allegedly by Israel, has been to substantially erode the agreement’s nonproliferation provisions in three different respects. The first relates to an expansion of uranium enrichment that cuts the timeline for producing one bomb’s worth of fissile material from a year to approximately three months; the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) quarterly report pegs Tehran’s enriched uranium stockpile at 14 times the JCPOA cap of 202.8 kilograms and at an upper enrichment rate of 20 percent uranium-235 instead of the 3.67 percent permitted under the deal.3

The second concerns the verification and monitoring authorities of the IAEA, which under the nuclear deal is afforded JCPOA-specific transparency accesses, as well as access under the additional protocol to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran suspended these authorities in February, although IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi negotiated a three-month “bilateral technical understanding” to maintain key oversight capabilities.4 The agency is also set to press Iran on outstanding questions relating to past work at undeclared sites during technical discussions scheduled for this month. Finally, although the expansion of uranium enrichment can be undone and IAEA access fully restored, the third area of concern involves ongoing nuclear research and development activities on advanced centrifuges and uranium-metal production that deliver, as the three European JCPOA parties note, “irreversible knowledge gain.”5

Much Activity, Little Movement

Biden came into office critical of the maximum-pressure strategy, pointing to Iran’s increased nuclear activity and to heightened regional tensions as evidence of “a dangerous failure” by his predecessor.6 His administration took several symbolic steps to put the prospect of diplomatic reengagement on more stable footing, easing Trump-era restrictions on the movement of New York-based Iranian diplomats and withdrawing a 2020 claim to have pre-JCPOA sanctions successfully restored at the United Nations. Senior U.S. diplomats and officials, whose ranks now include several veterans of JCPOA negotiations, engaged early and often in consultations with the deal’s other participants, as well as U.S. regional allies, on how to proceed. Importantly, the administration affirmed that, as a matter of priority, negotiations would focus on restoring the JCPOA as a sine qua non for any wider negotiations with Tehran.

Despite these actions, Tehran demurred on a EU offer in February to convene an informal meeting of JCPOA parties and the United States, to which Washington had already agreed. Iran’s rejection was rooted not in what steps the Biden administration has taken, but those which it had not and, in its view, should as a precondition for talks, namely, facilitating significant sanctions reprieve, such as easing conditions for the release of billions in Iranian assets frozen abroad or implicit assent to an International Monetary Fund emergency loan Tehran requested at the outset of the pandemic. From Iran’s perspective, the onus of a meaningful opening concession falls on the United States for having left the JCPOA in the first place. No talks, even informal ones, can ensue so long as the architecture of maximum pressure remains intact, despite Biden’s denigration of it.

Yet, Washington is reluctant to make such a substantial move, likely for several reasons. A unilateral step allowing Iranian access to funds would be seen as akin to making a down payment toward negotiations and, although all but certain to invite attack from domestic critics who regard the JCPOA as irredeemable, would also risk the ire of those who may be persuaded to give engaging Tehran a chance so long as it prompts tangible Iranian concessions. Moreover, Washington views an uptick in regional tensions, including a spate of rocket attacks against U.S. and allied facilities in Iraq, and increased drone and missile strikes against Saudi Arabia by Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen as suggesting that Tehran is not restraining its local partners at best and orchestrating violent provocations by them at worst.

As a result, Washington and Tehran are in a peculiar position of agreeing to the end point of a diplomatic process—mutual JCPOA compliance—but they are in a stalemate at the start of it. Discreet bilateral contacts or mediation efforts from a third party such as the European Union could prove crucial in breaking the impasse.

Triage, Then Surgery

If neither the United States nor Iran is willing to make the first substantive move, one potential solution would be to identify initial steps that each can take in parallel, thereby sidestepping the question of unilateral concessions in favor of mutual, reciprocal action. For example, the United States could work with South Korea on the partial release of frozen Iranian assets, which might in turn be earmarked for purchases of COVID vaccines and other medical goods through the Swiss humanitarian channel set up in coordination with the Trump administration to allow satisfactory due diligence on disbursement.7 Such a step would not require the formal revocation of existing U.S. sanctions and would ensure a degree of transparency on where the funds land. In return, Tehran could end one of its more worrisome nuclear breaches, such as the recently initiated production of uranium metal or uranium enrichment to 20 percent U-235.8 In turn, such an initial understanding would lay the groundwork for informally convening the United States, Iran, and other JCPOA participants for negotiations to stop further escalations and develop a timetable that sees Tehran and Washington unwind their nuclear breaches and sanctions, respectively, on the path toward mutual compliance.9

Even if such a sequence finds traction, it is likely to encounter a number of obstacles. Iran holds presidential elections in June, which President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration negotiated the JCPOA and has put considerable political capital into efforts to salvage it, cannot contest, having served the legally permissible two terms. Rouhani has already hinted that election dynamics are limiting his room for maneuver, referring to a “minority who seek to obstruct” the lifting of sanctions.10 If true, it could be an indication that other elements within the Iranian system are reluctant to hand the departing administration a political victory that could bolster the centrist camp’s electoral prospects.

The head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi (L), meeting with the visiting Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi (R), in Tehran. In response to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, Iran  has accelerated its nuclear activities. The most recent IAEA report finds that Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile is 14 times above  the JCPOA limit and it is not enriching uranium to 20 percent instead of the 3.67 percent permitted under the deal.  (Photo: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Looking further ahead, Western officials hold divergent views on how significant the outcome of the presidential race will prove for nuclear talks. One school of thought posits that whereas Iran’s decision-making ultimately resides with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not the executive branch, a change in its elected leadership will not meaningfully alter Tehran’s strategic calculus. As a logical extension, the election should not be viewed as a hard deadline for a diplomatic breakthrough.

An alternative view is that although the supreme leader and the circle around him provide a degree of continuity in the Iranian system, who sits at the table does matter in complex negotiations. It is better then at least to initiate the diplomatic process and give it momentum with Rouhani and his team still in place, rather than start from scratch with a successor hailing from a more conservative or even hard-line camp, which have been consistently critical of the JCPOA. Both arguments are reasonable and not necessarily in contradiction; it could well be the case that an agreement on JCPOA compliance would be easier to strike with the Rouhani administration and that failure do so would not necessarily shut the door on Rouhani’s successor pursuing a similar deal. As the election season begins in earnest in coming weeks, the contours of the importance of the nuclear negotiations will become more apparent.

The dynamics are complicated on the U.S. side as well. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that an Iranian return to JCPOA compliance would trigger “some sanctions relief.”11 Much may hinge on what “some” constitutes: the Trump administration levied more than 1,500 designations against Iranian individuals and entities, and Tehran contends that U.S. JCPOA compliance means rolling them back entirely.12 That is a maximalist demand unlikely to be realized, particularly as it concerns designations related to issues clearly well removed from the nuclear question, such as human rights or electoral interference. Yet, a tricky balancing act may lie in wait regarding cases such as Iran’s central bank and other financial entities, which are subject to multiple layers of U.S. sanctions, including some relating to counterterrorism.13

Former Trump administration officials have acknowledged that, technically speaking, “any president has the right to reverse an executive action…. Whether it is politically possible is a different question.”14 The Biden administration could conceivably make a case for lifting such designations in the context of restoring the JCPOA, but what may be necessary for diplomacy to succeed will almost certainly meet with domestic political blowback.15 As such, a proposal of sanctions relief sufficient to meet Iran’s minimal threshold of acceptability is likely to encounter deep skepticism or outright opposition, among not just congressional Republicans but some key Democrats as well.

Furthermore, Washington’s Middle Eastern allies already view tentative U.S. steps toward reengagement with Tehran with deep apprehension. Israel and some Gulf Arab states saw the negotiations that culminated in the JCPOA as problematic in form and substance. The perception, right or wrong, lingers that the Obama administration fell short on keeping them abreast of its discussions with Tehran and that the resulting agreement left key concerns such as Iran’s ballistic missile development and support for local allies unaddressed or even exacerbated them by lifting sanctions. It will have been little surprise, therefore, that the main international endorsements of Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy came from countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would prefer a Biden policy that looks more like a Trump second term than an Obama third term.

Beyond the Nuclear File

The Biden administration’s approach to these concerns is to view the JCPOA as a necessary but insufficient diplomatic initiative. Blinken and other U.S. officials describe a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal, to be constructed on top of a fully reinstated JCPOA. The imperative for such a new deal increases as some of the JCPOA’s restrictions are phased out over the next few years, while concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile development and regional power projection point to the need for follow-on negotiations. It is a list of priorities not too dissimilar to what the Trump administration posited, with the critical distinction that its successor views the JCPOA as a sturdy foundation to be built on rather than razed so that a new structure can take its place.

Indeed, if there is one lesson to be learned from the JCPOA negotiations, it is that although the nuclear file has enough complexities of its own, the success of an agreement cannot be divorced from wider policy considerations if it is to be sustainable and Washington’s regional allies are to come to view it as something other than a zero-sum proposition. An effort at deescalation in the Gulf may be the most feasible starting point. Constructive U.S. and Iranian engagement on Yemen, for example, which is a secondary theater for Tehran but a primary worry for Riyadh, could bolster international efforts to reach a ceasefire and establish a modicum of cooperation.

The Iranians could press their Houthi allies against continued drone and missile strikes into Saudi territory in exchange for a halt in Saudi airstrikes against populated areas in Yemen and support UN-led, U.S.-backed efforts toward a negotiated settlement. In turn, such a move could run parallel to efforts toward a wider, inclusive dialogue between Iran and Gulf Arab states, supported by the UN and Western powers, tackling issues of common interest, such as maritime security and public health, and perhaps broader security issues in due course.


Washington and Tehran have each said they are committed to restoring the JCPOA, but the Biden administration’s early days illustrate the challenge of moving from agreement in principle to practice. With neither side willing to take the first step, each maintains what it sees as leverage and the other views as lack of seriousness in a negotiation: Iran continuing to deepen its JCPOA breaches and flexing its muscles in the Middle East and the United States maintaining the attritional sanctions regime it inherited from Trump.

Even if the stalemate can be broken on an initial exchange of positive gestures, pitfalls abound on the steps toward mutual compliance, let alone the prospects of a follow-on accord. Sequencing and verifying Iran’s nuclear reversals and identifying the suitable parameters of commensurate sanctions relief are themselves no small task, especially against the backdrop of a fluid political situation in Tehran, a skeptical political environment in Washington, and simmering tensions in the region. A sense that the alternative is worse for both sides—a growing nonproliferation headache for the West, worsening penury for Iran—could be the incentive that breaks the deadlock.



1. “After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy,” The Heritage Foundation, May 21, 2018, https://www.heritage.org/defense/event/after-the-deal-new-iran-strategy.

2. The World Bank, “Iran Economic Monitor: Weathering the Triple-Shock,” Fall 2020, http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/287811608721990695/pdf/Iran-Economic-Monitor-Weathering-the-Triple-Shock.pdf.

3. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015): Report by the Director-General,” GOV/2021/10, February 23, 2021.

4. “Joint Statement by the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Head of the AEOI and the Director General of the IAEA,” IAEA, February 21, 2021, https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/pressreleases/joint-statement-by-the-vice-president-of-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-and-head-of-the-aeoi-and-the-director-general-of-the-iaea.

5. For example, see UK Mission to the UN in Vienna, “E3 Statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” March 4, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-to-the-iaea-board-of-governors-on-verification-and-monitoring-in-the-islamic-republic-of-iran-march-2021.

6. Joe Biden, “There’s a Smarter Way to Be Tough on Iran,” CNN, September 13, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html.

7. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “United States and Switzerland Finalize the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement,” February 27, 2020, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm919.

8. UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, “Iran’s Production of Uranium Metal in Violation of the JCPOA: E3 Statement,” February 12, 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e3-statement-on-the-jcpoa-12-february-2021.

9. “Restoring the JCPOA’s Nuclear Limits,” Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, February 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/sites/default/files/files/Reports/ACA_JCPOA-DealViolations_FactSheet2021.pdf.

10. “Dr. Rouhani After the Cabinet’s Last Meeting of the Year,” President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, March 17, 2021, http://president.ir/en/120219.

11. “Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy Priorities,” PBS, March 3, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/secretary-of-state-antony-blinken-on-the-biden-administrations-foreign-policy-priorities.

12. “What It Will Take to Break the U.S.-Iran Impasse: A Q&A With Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif,” Politico, March 17, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/03/17/iran-nuclear-deal-javad-zarif-qa-476588.

13. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Sanctions Iran’s Central Bank and National Development Fund,” September 20, 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm780.

14. “Former Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams: Media Roundtable With Israeli Journalists,” U.S. Embassy in Israel, November 9, 2020, https://il.usembassy.gov/special-representative-for-iran-and-venezuela-elliott-abrams/.

15. For example, see Kenneth Katzman, “Analyzing Terrorism Sanctions on Iran and the Path Forward,” Atlantic Council, February 11, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/analyzing-terrorism-sanctions-on-iran-and-the-path-forward/; Matthew Zweig, Alireza Nader, and Richard Goldberg, “Biden Administration Should Not Provide Sanctions Relief for Terrorism,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 22, 2021, https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2021/02/22/biden-should-not-provide-sanctions-relief/.


Naysan Rafati is the Senior Iran Analyst at International Crisis Group.



Nearly three years after the United States exited the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Washington and Tehran now agree on the need to restore mutual compliance, but they remain in a stalement about how exactly to do so.

Apes on a Treadmill in Space

April 2021
By David A. Koplow

In 1975, Paul Warnke published a celebrated article entitled “Apes on a Treadmill,” in which he criticized the wastefulness and the danger of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear arms race.1 Warnke likened the two superpowers to simian imitators who slavishly copy each other’s weapons deployments, endlessly pursuing and endlessly denying to the adversary any meaningful strategic superiority.

The Sodium Guidestar laser at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico is used for real-time, high-fidelity tracking and imaging of satellites too faint for conventional adaptive optical imaging systems. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)Shortly thereafter, Warnke became President Jimmy Carter’s chief negotiator for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II treaty, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (and this author’s first professional boss). Warnke advanced the effort to cap and then reduce global nuclear arsenals, which he regarded as absurdly overdeveloped and as so mutually offsetting that they could offer neither protagonist a significant, sustainable advantage.

Today, the vision that Warnke abhorred is spooling out again, in a different but equally futile venue: outer space, where a third central character, China, has joined the original two apes in another hazardous, expensive arms race, all going nowhere, this time at rocket speed.

Jolted by the surging security dangers in space, the United States, its rivals, and its allies are devoting more attention at last to the sustainability of their vital spacecraft, on which so much of the world’s economy, military, and civil society have come to depend. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at the Conference on Disarmament in February, has called for “developing standards and norms of responsible behavior in outer space.”2 The UN General Assembly in December 2020 inched beyond its previous tepid resolutions by expressing the desire that member states “reach a common understanding of how best to act to reduce threats to space systems in order to maintain outer space as a peaceful, safe, stable and sustainable environment.”3 Even the U.S. Space Command has recognized the need for advancing arms control in space, with Major General DeAnna Burt calling for the articulation of additional, legally binding international restraints on threatening space behaviors.

These calls for action to reduce threats to space systems require prompt follow-through. The growing competition involving the United States, Russia, and China demands a more nuanced and comprehensive approach from leaders in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing that takes into account Warnke’s original insights, which are now more than 45 years old. The security environment in space today has become dangerously unstable, as all three leading states develop and test new iterations of space weaponry in their mirror-image pursuit of space control policies.

The United States in particular needs to promote more fully diplomatic options that put in place effective space arms control agreements and to provide a way out of the mutually reinforcing patterns of military competition. Negotiated measures of legal restraint for space could be especially effective in dealing with the contemporary challenges to satellites because deterrence-based concepts alone are less efficacious in the space environment.

Warnke’s Critique

Warnke in 1975 observed that the United States and Soviet Union were rushing headlong into research, development, testing, and deployment of new generations of nuclear weapons, inspired in large measure by their reciprocal fears. Each protagonist viewed with great alarm the military programs of the other, and each ascribed the worst motivations to its rival’s exercises. Triggered by the other, each raced toward accumulation of greater nuclear firepower, independent of any sound strategic rationale. That is the “apes” aspect of the title of his piece; whatever one actor perceived the other one doing, it would mindlessly copy or adapt for itself.

Warnke recognized the futility of the process. Each side could offset the programs of the other, so a rough parity was sustained, simply at higher levels overall of armaments and spending. Neither could gain a decisive advantage over its equally vigilant and dedicated opponent. That is the titular “treadmill” aspect; there was no meaningful superiority to be gained in the competition, and no end point at which a winner would emerge.

In addition, Warnke and others complained that the process was not merely frightfully expensive, with billions of dollars at the time being flushed toward nuclear programs, but the endless escalation resulted in sharply increased danger for all. As weapons inventories multiplied, the dangers of accidental, unauthorized, or mistaken use would rise accordingly. The world was unaccountably lucky during the Cold War, as brinkmanship never devolved into catastrophe. In the long run, however, luck is not a reliable national security strategy or a guideline for a budget.

The world learned something under Warnke’s tutelage. Nuclear arms control became a staple of superpower relations, with Republican and Democratic presidents bringing home a series of bilateral treaties on strategic arms limitation, intermediate-range nuclear force elimination, and strategic arms reduction, as well as multilateral nuclear test ban and nonproliferation agreements. There were vicissitudes in the process, of course, but the U.S.-Soviet dialogue continued even during the darkest and most crisis-marred days of the Cold War era. As a result, nuclear explosive testing has been halted, the number of nuclear-armed states has been limited to nine, and the operational nuclear arsenals of the two chief contestants have been reduced by 80 to 90 percent from Cold War highs to some 4,000 U.S. and 4,000 Russian nuclear warheads today.

Nuclear dangers persist in part because of the failures of the two major nuclear actors to continue to engage and to improve on earlier successes, the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, and decisions by leaders in Moscow and Washington to engage in a new, costly apes-on-a-treadmill cycle of nuclear competition. President Donald Trump exacerbated the situation by withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and Open Skies treaties, stalling on a deal to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and declaring that U.S. missile defenses are intended in part to counter Russian and Chinese offensive ballistic missiles—a series of shocks that some observers have labeled “the end of arms control.”

Yet, arms control has rebounded from egregious tough times before and can do so again. Indeed, perhaps it is during the most tension-strewn phases that cooler heads recognize the profound benefits in treaty-making, confidence-building, mutual accommodation and calm communications. The recent rejection of legacy treaties may prove to be simply a hiccup in the long-term articulation of sensible nuclear restraints.

The enduring arms control relationship between the United States and Russia, now triangulated with China, is maddeningly complicated. The three protagonists will shift among the roles of adversaries, competitors, and collaborators in the realm of nuclear weapons as in everything else. Yet, Warnke pointed toward the illogic of an exclusive focus on the esoteric military-related aspects of such relationships, cautioning against “[o]verestimation of the practical utility and the political potency of our armed forces.” Smart diplomacy, he argued, offers a more viable alternative or complementary path toward security.

Deteriorating Security in Space

Today’s competition has extended endlessly upward. The stakes in orbital space are enormous and growing, as space is a $400 billion segment of the annual global economy. The United States now exploits satellite services for the full array of civilian and military applications. On the civilian side, many communications (television, telephone, internet), commercial activities (ATMs, credit card purchases), transportation functions (GPS guidance), and remote sensing (weather forecasting) are satellite enabled, and the Internet of Things will only increase the traffic. On the military side, satellites have promoted expedited communications between headquarters and fielded forces, as well as greatly augmenting local and global situational awareness and the exquisite accuracy of smart munitions. It is no exaggeration to conclude that modern U.S. modes of intelligence gathering and warfare would simply not be possible without satellites; a return to analog-era warfare capabilities would be crippling.

Unfortunately, that phenomenally successful exploitation of space has become a reliance, which has bred a dependency, and degenerated into a vulnerability, and other states have not failed to notice. Russia and China have persistently bolstered their programs toward increased anti-satellite (ASAT) capacities, experimenting with a variety of technologies at a variety of altitudes that can hold U.S. satellites hostage. Russia and China may believe they are simply trying to catch up with the prior and ongoing U.S. programs and capabilities in space control, but it is clear that the earlier concept of space as something of a sanctuary from ordinary earthbound military rivalry is permanently imperiled.

Other countries have increasingly invested in satellite services too. Eleven countries or consortia have demonstrated an indigenous capability for launching objects into space, 60 or more own or operate their own spacecraft, and all benefit daily from satellite services. Even with this emergent “democratization of space,” the United States remains the predominant player, operating more satellites for more functions than any other actor and commanding by far the largest national space budget.

A U.S. Air Force F-15A a mile high over the Pacific Ocean launches a multi-stage ASM-135 missile as part of an anti-satellite intercept test on September 13, 1985. In 1958, the United States first began experimenting with ASAT weapons, beginning with air-launched ballistic missiles and later, ground-launched ballistic missiles. The Soviet Union pursued similar experiments, as well as co-orbital ASAT systems. In the late-1970s, the United States began to develop non-nuclear, kinetic ASAT capabilities, such as the air-launched ASM-135. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)The new era in space weaponization can be traced roughly to 2007, when China abruptly shot down one of its own satellites, rupturing an informal moratorium on destructive ASAT weapons tests. Since that wake-up call, China has persisted in pursuing its space control capabilities, often testing devices under the guise of missile defense interceptors, rather than ASAT systems. Russia has experimented with covert “rendezvous and proximity operations” to refine its maneuvering capability, which could be a precursor for inspecting and attacking other states’ spacecraft. For its part, the United States has pursued the development of a Counter Communications System for jamming satellite links and the maturation of the mysterious X-37B spacecraft, which is a small, unmanned knockoff of a space shuttle, as a long-endurance, reusable platform capable of a variety of offensive military applications.

In all three of the leading spacefaring countries, bellicose rhetoric has escalated alongside rising military space expenditures. Leadership statements now emphasize the pursuit of space dominance or control, and they categorically refer to space as just another domain for military operations, stressing that even as land, sea, and air have known arms races and armed conflict, space too inevitably will be fully weaponized. Just as U.S. authorities regularly refer to space as the “ultimate high ground” for future warfare, Chinese air force leaders have come to assert that “militarization of space is a ‘historic inevitability.’” The bureaucratic structures in each country reflect this newfound belligerence: Trump’s establishment of the new Space Force was sold partly as a necessary response to similar institutional reorganizations already implemented in Russia and China.

In sum, the portrait of space security today bears an eerie resemblance to Warnke’s description of the nuclear realm 45 years ago. There is a new cycle of zealous competition among the United States, Russia, and China, with each claiming to offset the provocative initiatives of the others, resulting in a nervous, diminishing security for all. Pursuit of absolute control or dominance in space is as futile as in nuclear realm, and it is likewise staggeringly expensive.

The Absence of Arms Control in Space

The early years of the space age were remarkably productive for international law. Within only a decade after the launch of Sputnik, leading states had concluded the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the foundational instrument providing for the peaceful, lawful exploration and use of space, an instrument of constitutional significance, joined by almost all the leading space actors. The treaty contains prescient prohibitions against placing nuclear weapons into orbit and institutes restrictions on the testing of weapons or the creation of military installations on the moon or other celestial bodies. Three other treaties with wide adherence followed within another decade, quickly constructing much of the legal infrastructure for sustainable space operations.

Yet, the process ground virtually to a halt thereafter, and no major space-related treaties have been concluded since 1979. The Carter administration engaged the Soviet Union in three sputtering rounds of ASAT negotiations in 1977–1979, and a decade later, the Reagan administration injected space security into the agenda for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiations. None of those proceedings amounted to anything lasting.

Indeed, the two most recent, somewhat feeble efforts at articulating additional rules for space have collapsed. The European Union hawked several sequential iterations of a proposed code of conduct, a non-legally-binding set of modest rules for safe space operations, but it withered due to failures in its substantive content and its negotiating process. Russia and China have likewise propounded their draft treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in space, but it too has run aground due to its impoverished content and resistance from the United States. The Moscow-Beijing drafts have addressed solely the phenomenon of space-based ASAT systems, which would exclude the ground-based systems of greatest current interest, and sequential U.S. administrations have also emphasized the proposal’s conspicuous silence about mechanisms for verification of compliance.

The Conference on Disarmament, a UN-affiliated entity previously successful at developing new international instruments for arms control, has been deadlocked for two decades, especially regarding concepts for preventing a new arms race in space. Despite Blinken’s recent exhortations, there is little prospect that fresh initiatives will spontaneously spring from that source.

Conspicuously absent in this cavalcade are any proposals, draft treaties, or concerted leadership from the United States. The Trump administration was thoroughly hostile to new arms control measures of any stripe, but the problem long predated January 20, 2017. The George W. Bush administration had been similarly frank in its opposition to new negotiations in the space field. The Obama administration was somewhat more forward leaning regarding the concept of non-legally-binding confidence-building measures in space, but it was content with offering only a passive willingness to “consider” more meaningful steps without ever sponsoring any positive concepts or texts of its own. The Trump administration, despite articulating a stream of novel space policy documents regarding topics such as exploitation of space resources, was thunderously silent about arms control in the space domain. The attitude and the concrete steps of the Biden administration are yet to be determined or unveiled.

As usual, it is difficult to beat something with nothing, and the leadership role for space diplomacy has inevitably flowed elsewhere or simply dissipated.

The Utility of Arms Control in Space

This pattern of persistent diplomatic inaction and resistance is surprising and costly. The practice of arms control could be especially valuable in the exoatmospheric environment, and the alternative tactic, relying exclusively on military buildups and the invocation of deterrence, is particularly inapt for the special circumstances of space.

Consider first the two traditional strands of deterrence theory: by threat of retaliation and by denial. Deterrence by threat of retaliation warns an opponent that “[i]f you strike us, we will strike you in return, and our counterblow will be so effective and painful that it will negate any gains you might have thought you could obtain via your initial aggression.” In two subvariants, the retaliatory blow could be symmetric, roughly corresponding to the enemy’s first strike in modality, location, and format, or asymmetric, with the initial victim selecting the time, place, and manner of its response to shift the battleground to its own advantage.

This rationale and these options are familiar staples in the nuclear realm; they underpinned the concept of mutual assured destruction, which earned at least a portion of the credit for preserving Cold War stability and avoiding a nuclear World War III. Their successful translation to the space environment, however, is much less certain.

First, the profound asymmetry in the current and foreseeable exploitation of and dependence on satellites confounds the notion of a fully symmetric retaliation in response to any attack on a U.S. space system. That is, if Russia or China were to strike a U.S. satellite and the United States were to retaliate in kind, the tit-for-tat ASAT weapons exchange would continuously harm U.S. interests more than those of the others. As noted, the United States relies on space systems for military and civilian applications far more than its competitors and has the most to lose when those assets are degraded. In short, the U.S. ASAT system will run out of targets long before the opponents do.

Alternatively, the United States might attempt to circumvent that futility by adopting a practice of asymmetric retaliation, striking, for example, at the aggressor’s ground-based installations from where their initial ASAT onslaught was launched or at the command-and-control facilities that directed the initiative rather than retaliating directly against the opponent’s spacecraft. That sort of asymmetric option provided considerable credibility during Cold War nuclear confrontations, where the United States might have transferred any conflict to a different geographic theater or domain of operation. In the space context, however, an asymmetric retaliation might be regarded as unhelpfully escalatory. That is, after suffering a first strike that may have damaged a U.S. space asset but did not directly inflict any human casualties or impact sovereign U.S. territory, it could be deemed unwise or illegal to up the ante by inflicting substantial numbers of deaths and injuries to people in the adversary’s homeland. Under the applicable international law of war, a second strike need not be identical to the provocation in location or manner, but it must nonetheless be proportional in scale and effects. Going beyond that level might impress participants and outside observers as moving in the wrong direction.

As the alternative form of deterrence, deterrence by denial is a strategy to persuade the enemies not to strike by convincing them that they will fail in the effort because the target possesses the means to intercept their attack or to frustrate their attempt to inflict significant damage. Within the nuclear realm, this strategy led to programs to disperse U.S. retaliatory forces among multiple platforms (the so-called triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers), harden or hide those assets, and ensure against creating a single point of failure. It also inspired efforts to invent anti-missile systems, interrupt the enemy’s kill chain, and protect the civilian population by civil defense training and sheltering.

Some of those approaches retain a degree of validity for application to satellites, and U.S. planners have already begun to undertake steps to enhance the resiliency of the U.S. space architecture, such as the deployment of larger numbers of smaller, less expensive satellites dispersed at multiple altitudes and azimuths rather than relying on only a handful of exquisite, expensive multifunction behemoths. There are also nascent efforts to revivify some terrestrial alternatives to satellite systems as fallbacks in case GPS, broadband communications, and other now-familiar services degrade.

The limits on how well satellites can be immunized from attack are stark. Spacecraft will always be soft targets. They cannot be heavily armored or deft enough to dash away from an ASAT weapon, and they mostly follow known, predictable orbital pathways, constituting delicate, expensive sitting ducks. Just as it has proven futile and wasteful to pursue the chimera of a perfect anti-missile nuclear defensive shield, it also appears that the offense enjoys a perpetual advantage in military space operations—deterrence by denial may be unobtainable.

Conversely, a policy of arms control should be even more robust and successful in space than it has been in the nuclear realm for several reasons. First, the cat is not yet fully out of the bag: Although nine countries are widely attributed as having nuclear weapons, only four (the United States, China, Russia, and now India) have tested kinetic ASAT weapons. Moreover, the three chief actors have conducted 1,790 nuclear weapons tests, but they have been responsible for only 61 ASAT tests, most of which were completed decades ago by the United States and Soviet Union. Most vividly, unlike nuclear weapons, ASAT weapons have never been wielded in combat.

More importantly, each of the leading states has significant policy incentives for pursuing sensible arms control in space. For the United States, the primary inducement is to preserve the currently precarious security in space, protecting its burgeoning investment in satellite systems. Russia and China should feel an offsetting imperative to slow down the U.S. ASAT programs, restraining a potentially overwhelming U.S. technological leap for space control.

Moreover, new initiatives in arms control would not have to start from scratch. They could take root in the extant preliminary understandings about viable rules of the road, ensconced in organic space treaties and a raft of recent, non-legally-binding, internationally accepted guidelines about avoiding the proliferation of harmful debris in space and about the long-term sustainability of space activities.

The noted democratization of space also contributes to the viability of an arms control regime. As more countries and more private commercial enterprises become active in space, they will demand a stable, predictable regime, one in which their investments will be protected, not continuously jeopardized. The broad, multilateral support for avoiding an arms race in space has long been frustrated. It can now be marshalled to support meaningful progress.

Toward a More Effective U.S. Approach

There is no dearth of viable ideas for arms control innovations in space.4 Plausible structures could include test bans, restricting the altitudes for ASAT tests and banning debris-creating tests altogether; keep-out zones, establishing a safety sphere around critical national security spacecraft; and no-first-use pledges, modifying national declaratory policies and doctrine regarding attacks on satellites. The literature abounds with provocative proposals, some similar to tried-and-true measures that proved successful within the nuclear realm and some unique to space. Of course, arms control is no panacea, and it comes with no guaranties. Yet, the failure to try this technique for pursuing security in space is strange and counterproductive.

More fundamental than any particular proposal is the importance of the Biden administration deciding early and publicly to reverse the long-standing stasis in space arms control. The United States should recognize that a pattern of continued militarization of space is insufficient to provide the stability on which its economy and its armed forces depend, so the tools of diplomacy and international law should be marshalled too.


The most striking feature of the concept of deterrence is that it is fundamentally a psychological phenomenon, an effort to persuade an adversary not to exercise military power against the United States. Attempts are made to convince the potentially hostile foreign leaders that if they attempt to strike, they will fail or suffer unacceptable harm in return. In sharp contrast, arms control operates in the realm of physical reality—it attempts to reduce or eliminate an enemy’s armaments, interdicting their sheer ability to inflict pain. Arms control offers the only way—the only peaceful way—of directly diminishing the number and quality of destructive weapons that a potential enemy state possesses and points against its adversaries.

Both strategies have their place, and wise national security policy in the nuclear and space domains should draw intelligently on both approaches as the technology and the politics permit. What is so striking today is the monopoly power that deterrence and defense have come to exercise. They have virtually excluded arms control measures from the dialogue about security in space, a realm in which treaty negotiations could offer significant new promise.

Writing in 1975, Warnke addressed only the nuclear, bilateral U.S.-U.S.S.R. dimension of international security. Today, the problem has grown steadily more complicated, extending upward to space and embracing a third near-peer competitor in China. Yet, Warnke’s imagery and his central theme remain intact: the only victory the tired apes can enjoy will come from jumping off that overly worn treadmill.



1. Paul C. Warnke, “Apes on a Treadmill,” Foreign Policy, No. 18 (Spring 1975), pp. 12–29.

2. “Secretary Blinken’s Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament,” U.S. Department of State, February 22, 2021, https://www.state.gov/video-remarks-to-the-conference-on-disarmament/.

3. UN General Assembly, “Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviours,” A/RES/75/36, December 16, 2020.

4. For a recent survey of creative, intriguing concepts, see Victoria Samson and Brian Weeden, “Enhancing Space Security: Time for Legally Binding Measures,” Arms Control Today, December 2020, pp. 6–13.


David A. Koplow is a professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center. This article is based on his essay, “Deterrence as the MacGuffin: The Case for Arms Control in Outer Space” (2020), in the Journal of National Security Law & Policy.

In all three of the leading spacefaring countries, bellicose rhetoric has escalated alongside rising military space expenditures.

Michael S. Elleman (1958–2021)

April 2021
By Mark Fitzpatrick

Journalist David E. Hoffman said, “Michael Elleman was a pioneer, determined to make the world safer.” Recalling a 2004 interview for his book The Dead Hand, about the dangerous legacy of the Cold War arms race, Hoffman noted that, at Lockheed Martin Corp. in the 1980s, Elleman had worked on the Trident D5 missile, but decided it would be better to eliminate than to create these dangerous weapons. He pursued that goal as an engineer, a government contractor, a UN inspector, and lastly as a think tank expert.

Michael Elleman speaking on "Curbing the North Korean Nuclear and Missile Threat" at the June 2, 2017 Arms Control Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Arms Control Association)Elleman’s 40-year career was cut short on February 20, when he lost a long battle with cancer. Although he had been given a clean bill of health just last year, metastasizing melanoma aggressively returned in December. He is survived by wife Tatyana (Tanya), son Nikita, mother Irene, and brothers Daniel Jr. (Hiromi) and Bruce.

Influenced by his father, a renowned physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mike earned BA and MA degrees in physics from the University of California at Berkeley. He then worked for two decades at the Lockheed Martin Research and Development Laboratories in Palo Alto. Among other projects, he conducted research on solid propellants, weapons elimination technologies, and nuclear effects. Nancy Ziuzin Schlegel, who is still at Lockheed Martin, remembers that his business card simply said, “Mike Elleman - Rocket Scientist.”

In the early 1990s, Elleman spent two years as a science fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), where he applied his technical knowledge to nonproliferation challenges. Under CISAC Science Director John Harvey, Elleman honed the research skills that would mark his contributions to the field.

At CISAC, as at Berkeley, Mike also excelled at sports. South Asia security expert Peter Lavoy recounted how Elleman scored the winning basket on their intermural basketball team for the only game they won that season. “Our celebration was epic!” Lavoy said. California wine contributed. “I never met a more vibrant, life-loving person,” colleague Dave Myers said.

While at Lockheed Martin and at a spin-off company, Elleman led a Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program in Russia, aimed at dismantling long-range missiles. Hoffman’s interview notes say that Elleman worked with Soviet officials to create factories and engineering processes that could be used to eliminate weapons without hurting the environment. His hosts were resistant to discard products they considered to have great value. Officials in Ukraine wanted to convert 17,000 tons of dangerous UDMH rocket fuel for some civil purpose. They wondered, “Could they process it into shampoo, or maybe rust inhibitor, or a chemical to help preserve fruit?”

In 2002, Elleman was recruited to join the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) under Hans Blix as a chief inspector to verify the elimination of Iraqi missiles. Elleman said that what he had learned working in Russia paid great dividends working in Iraq. Former fellow inspector Charles Duelfer characterized Elleman “as one of the fraternity of arms control experts and practitioners who really understood the relationship between ideals, technology, and practicalities of verification.”

Michael Elleman (R), Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), listens to former UN inspector Hans Blix during a press gathering in Dubai on March 5, 2013.  (Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq obviated the UN mission there, Elleman resumed his focus on dismantlement of obsolete Soviet arms. With the Washington-based firm of Booz Allen Hamilton, he carried out CTR projects in Russia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan for strategic arms elimination, biological safety and security, and proliferation prevention.

Having met Elleman at Booz Allen when I once explored a job there myself, I turned the tables in 2009 when I instead brought him to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) to produce a book about Iran’s ballistic missile program. The proliferation challenges of Iran and North Korea became the focus of the last 12 years of his career. At the IISS, most recently as director of the Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy program, he co-authored four books and wrote a hundred or so articles, op-eds and other analytical works on how to manage the risks posed by the spread of nuclear and missile technology.

Although his career was founded in science, Elleman’s interests were as broad as they were deep. A measure of the scope of his scholarship were the tomes on technology, history, and politics in English, Russian, and German that weighted his shelves and decorated his floors. The science pursuits, it must be added, included oenology.

The many tributes to Elleman posted on social media praised his intelligence and expertise, his humor and humility, and his passion for work and family. Journalists referred to his willingness to share his knowledge and his knack for doing so in understandable terms. Younger colleagues appreciated his gift of mentorship. Treating everyone as his equal and intent on helping them grow professionally, he made junior staff feel respected and valued in whatever endeavor. Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, said, “For a new generation of analysts, he made sure we had a seat at the table. We are bereft.”

Former NATO Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller called Elleman “a national treasure in his deep knowledge of missile programs across the world and a heck of a nice guy.” Siegfried Hecker, senior fellow emeritus at Stanford University, said, “Mike was discerning and collegial, unfailingly gracious and generous, and always friendly and unpretentious, and I would add he was the consummate professional. One could always rely on Mike for the unvarnished truth.”

Scott Sagan at CISAC offered a closing memory: “Mike was a man with many interests and great knowledge about all of them. I recall one evening when we went to a San Francisco Giants baseball game together, and in between innings, he explained to me how to assess Iraqi missile accuracy, the differences between left bank and right bank Bordeaux blends, and the qualities of a beautiful Heriz carpet. When he left the seats to go get something to eat, a neighboring fan who must have been listening in to our conversation, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, ‘Who is that guy?’ I just said, ‘My friend, Mike Elleman.’”

Mark Fitzpatrick is an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where he formerly led the Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy program before retiring and turning it over to Michael Elleman. The two collaborated on three books, most recently Uncertain Future: The JCPOA and Iran’s Nuclear and Missile Programmes (2019).

Michael S. Elleman (1958–2021)

Efforts to Restore Iran Deal Remain Stalled

April 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

More than two months following the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the United States and Iran remain deadlocked over the process of restoring the 2015 nuclear deal. In recent weeks, however, the Biden administration appears to be signaling that it is willing to take a more flexible approach to coordinate the steps necessary for Washington and Tehran to return to compliance with the accord.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily press briefing on March 12, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.  (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)In a March 17 interview with BBC Persian, Robert Malley, the president’s special envoy for Iran, said that the United States is willing to talk in “whatever format the Iranian government is comfortable with.”

Past statements from U.S. officials implied a preference for direct talks with Iran to discuss restoring the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Biden administration said in February that it would accept an invitation from the European Union to meet with the parties to the JCPOA, but Tehran has not said it would participate in such a meeting and has dismissed the necessity of direct talks.

But Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif did say in a CNN interview Feb. 2 that the EU could play a role in coordinating actions by the United States and Iran.

Zarif made a similar point in a March 17 interview in Politico, saying Iran is “ready to agree to a choreography” but a meeting is unnecessary because there is “nothing to talk about.” Zarif said the United States knows what is required to return to compliance with the deal “unless they are not serious” and intend to use the talks to “extract new concessions” and pursue a “wider agreement.”

The Biden administration has said it plans to pursue diplomacy with Iran on a wider range of issues once the nuclear deal is restored.

But the failure to take early action to return the United States to the JCPOA and urging from certain Democrats in Congress not to lift sanctions until Iran agrees to concessions on areas outside of the nuclear deal, such as ballistic missiles, contribute to the perception in Tehran that the Biden administration is not serious about restoring the JCPOA.

A bipartisan letter signed by 140 members of the U.S. House of Representatives called for addressing Iran’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile activities, and support for terrorism “from the onset.” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) said that the letter is in line with the Biden administration’s compliance-for-compliance approach to restoring the JCPOA, but his Republican co-lead signatory, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), tweeted on March 9 that the letter signatories and the Biden administration are “NOT on the same page.”

Iran is facing its own opposition to restoring the nuclear deal. President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at the “small minority that is obstructing” the path to sanctions relief during a March 17 interview. He said that it is a “great betrayal of the Iranian nation” to delay “the end of sanctions.”

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed a similar sentiment in his annual Nowruz message on March 19. Khamenei said that Iran’s position on the nuclear deal has been decided and should not be violated. If the United States lifts sanctions, Iran will meet its commitments, he said.

Khamenei’s comments appear to indicate that Iran’s presidential election will not alter Tehran’s position on restoring full implementation of the JCPOA. The election will be held in June, and the next president will take office in August. Having served two terms, Rouhani is not eligible to run again.

Although Iran and the United States have not met in person to discuss the JCPOA, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the Biden administration is still making its position known to Iran through indirect communications.

In a March 12 interview with National Public Radio, Sullivan said that “communications through the Europeans” enable the United States to “explain to the Iranians what our position is with respect to the compliance-for-compliance approach and to hear what their position is.”

Foreign Minister Zarif indicated on March 5 that Iran is also sharing its approach on restoring the JCPOA. He said that Tehran intended to send a “constructive concrete plan of action” through “proper diplomatic channels.”

Iran says a meeting is unnecessary for a return to compliance with the accord.

Pentagon Reviews Nuclear Budget

April 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department has begun an initial review of aspects of the costly U.S. plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid continued support from military leaders for the modernization program and debate in Congress about the need for and affordability of the effort.

The Defense Department has begun an initial review of aspects of the costly U.S. plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid debate in Congress about the need for and affordability of the effort. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)In a Feb. 17 memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks directed the director of the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to lead a set of reviews “on a very small number of issues with direct impact on [fiscal year] 2022 and of critical importance” to President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Among those issues is a review of lower-yield nuclear weapons and select command, control, and communications topics.

Although the exact scope of the review of the nuclear enterprise is unclear, the language in Hicks’ memo suggests the review is confined to an assessment of the Trump administration’s proposal to develop and field a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead variant, known as the W76-2, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile. (See ACT, March 2018.)

The Navy began fielding the W76-2 in late 2019. (See ACT, March 2020.) The new cruise missile is currently undergoing an analysis of alternatives to determine possible options for the weapon.

The Biden administration is planning to release the defense budget on May 3. Multiple press reports indicate that the topline for national defense is likely to remain roughly the same level as the $741 billion appropriations for the current fiscal year.

The Hicks-directed review and likelihood of a flat defense budget comes as the ambition and price tag of the U.S. program to maintain and replace the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads and supporting infrastructure grew significantly under the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for the arsenal was a 19 percent increase over the previous year. Over the next several decades, spending is likely to top $1.5 trillion.

Administration officials have indicated that the budget review will be followed by a more comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy, but it remains to be seen when such a review will commence and what form it will take.

Austin said in response to advance questions prior to his confirmation hearing on Jan. 19 that “[i]n keeping with past practice for incoming Administrations, I would anticipate that President-elect Biden will direct the interagency to conduct a thorough set of strategic reviews, including of U.S. nuclear posture.”

Similarly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a group of Japanese reporters on March 17 that the Biden administration is “going to undertake something called the Nuclear Posture Review” and “that I think will begin in the weeks ahead.”

Some military officials are counseling the new administration to consider a broader strategic deterrence review that evaluates nuclear, space, cyber, and missile defense issues as a unified whole.

Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Air Force Association in late February that strategic deterrence is not “just about nuclear posture…not about missile defense, not just about space…. [I]t’s about all those things together that provide our overall strategic capability and our ability to strategically deter our adversaries.”

Austin and Hicks said at their confirmation hearings that they support the continued maintenance of a nuclear triad and highlighted modernization of the triad as a top priority. They did not commit to continuing the status quo on every modernization program, most notably the program to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, and instead said they would closely review the current plans before making any recommendations.

But top Pentagon military leaders are continuing to express strong support for the modernization effort.

Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters on Jan. 5 that the purpose of a new nuclear policy review should be “[v]alidation, that we like the strategy that we have.”

Richard added that it is no longer possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III ICBM, an alternative advocated by critics of the new missile plan. (See ACT, October 2020.)

“It is getting past the point of…not [being] cost effective to life-extend Minuteman III,” he said. “You’re quickly getting to the point you can’t do it at all.”

Meanwhile, supporters and opponents of the current modernization plans in Congress continued to debate the merits of the plans ahead of the release of the Biden administration’s first budget request. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking members on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively, wrote in February that Biden “must prioritize long-overdue investments in the nuclear triad, or risk permanently losing our most effective means for deterring existential military threats.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) responded in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on March 5 by arguing that the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security and questioning whether the current modernization plans “are really necessary to have a deterrent.”

Other Democrats have been more supportive of continuing forward with the status quo. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told Bloomberg in a Feb. 23 interview that bipartisan support for modernizing the nuclear triad is “very strong.” He added that “we need a replacement” for the Minuteman III.

Under evaluation are lower-yield nuclear weapons, and select command, control and communications.

U.S. Nuclear Warhead Costs Surge

April 2021
By Kingston Reif

The projected long-term cost to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure has skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, according to the Energy Department’s latest Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, published last December.

U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles carry the W76-1 nuclear warhead. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the W76-1 Life Extension Program extends the originally designed warhead service life of 20 years to 60 years. NNSA completed refurbished warhead production in December 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)Prepared annually by the department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the report highlights the growing scope of the NNSA modernization plans and the fiscal challenge they will pose to the Biden administration.

The fiscal year 2021 version projects $505 billion in spending, after inflation, on NNSA efforts related to sustaining and modernizing the nuclear warhead stockpile over the next 25 years. This is an increase of $113 billion, or 29 percent, from the 2020 version of the plan. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The document states that the NNSA “considers this program to be affordable,” but does not provide a detailed explanation of why the agency believes that to be the case or why the cost of the 2021 plan is so much higher than the previous version.

According to an analysis published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July 2020, a “reevaluation of the funding needed to meet existing requirements, rather than costs associated with new requirements, was the main factor contributing to the large increase in proposed funding in [the Energy Department’s] fiscal year 2021 budget justification.”

The Trump administration in February 2020 requested $15.6 billion for NNSA nuclear weapons activities account in fiscal year 2021, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. (See ACT, March 2020.)

An NNSA spokesperson told Arms Control Today in December that “[b]arring unexpected new requirements or additional major programs of record, [the] NNSA’s weapons activities portfolio growth will reach a steady-state period beginning in fiscal year 2021.”

“As new program of record activities begin, previous programs of record will be closing out, and the projected budget trend through fiscal year 2045 will see similar year-to-year increases that account for inflation,” the spokesperson added.

Under the Trump administration, the budget for the NNSA’s nuclear sustainment and modernization program grew well higher than the rate of inflation. The budget for this program has increased by more than 65 percent over the past four years.

The ambition of the agency’s modernization program is unlike anything seen since the Cold War. Allison Bawden, a director at the GAO, told Congress in March 2020 that the federal spending watchdog is “concerned about the long-term affordability of the plans.”

The agency has consistently underestimated the cost and schedule risks of major warhead life extension programs and infrastructure recapitalization projects.

The stockpile plan projects the cost to build a newly designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead proposed by the Trump administration, dubbed the W93, at $11.8–18.2 billion. The high degree of cost uncertainty reflects the fact that the proposed warhead is still in the early development phase.

The plan also reveals that, in addition to the W93, the agency is planning to eventually replace the existing W76 and W88 SLBM warheads with new warheads.

Existing plans call for a 29 percent increase in funds to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads.

Biden Fills Key Arms Control Posts

April 2021
By Shannon Bugos and Julia Masterson

President Joe Biden continues efforts to fill key positions across his administration that will influence the future of arms control, support nonproliferation objectives, and determine the trajectory of the U.S. nuclear weapons budget, including modernization programs.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III greets Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 9.  (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)Biden tapped long-time aide and confidante Antony Blinken to serve as his foreign policy point man. Blinken began his tenure as secretary of state Jan. 26, and the department has since contributed to the official extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia.

The president appointed Jake Sullivan, who served as then-Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, as national security advisor. In the first days and weeks after Inauguration Day, Sullivan worked closely with Blinken on the New START extension, and they have led efforts to fulfill Biden’s campaign commitment to restore Iranian compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Biden has nominated Bonnie Jenkins to fill the key position of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs in January and sent her nomination to the Senate for consideration on March 15. If confirmed, one of the main tasks ahead for Jenkins, who is a board member of the Arms Control Association and former coordinator for threat reduction programs at the State Department under the Obama administration, will be overseeing bilateral talks with Russia on strategic stability and nuclear arms control, as well as guiding the U.S. strategy for the upcoming 10th review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The bureaus of arms control, verification and compliance and international security and nonproliferation at the State Department report to the undersecretary. The president has yet to make nominations for either assistant secretary position in those bureaus but has filled the deputy assistant secretary positions. In January, Alexandra Bell, former senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, became deputy assistant secretary for arms control, verification and compliance. Similarly, Anthony Wier, who previously worked at the Friend’s Committee on National Legislation as the lead lobbyist and director on nuclear weapons policy, took up the deputy position at the international security and nonproliferation bureau.

Biden tapped Robert Malley, who was previously president of the International Crisis Group, to serve as the administration’s Iran envoy. The White House also nominated Jung Pak of the Brookings Institution to the role of deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs. Certain key regional State Department positions remain unfilled, including the assistant secretary for east Asian and Pacific affairs, the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, and others.

Wendy Sherman, who played a leading role in negotiating the JCPOA as undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Obama administration, is Biden’s nominee for the key deputy secretary of state post. Her nomination was reported by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 11. She will be the first female deputy secretary of state if confirmed.

Meanwhile, the Senate confirmed Gen. Lloyd Austin, former commander of U.S. Central Command, as defense secretary Jan. 22 making him the first Black defense secretary. Kathleen Hicks, former senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to serve as deputy secretary of defense Feb. 8.

Due to his former position on the board of Raytheon Technologies, Austin has recused himself from all decisions related to the company. This leaves Hicks to oversee some key nuclear weapons programs involving Raytheon, including the fate of the intercontinental ballistic missile replacement program and the new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile.

According to a Feb. 24 report in Politico, Hicks has launched a review of several programs ahead of the Pentagon’s release of its fiscal year 2022 budget request, including the Department’s nuclear weapons-related programs.

Biden tapped Colin Kahl, who served as his national security advisor when he was vice president, to be undersecretary of defense for policy. The Senate Armed Services Committee held his hearing on March 4, but the future of his nomination remains uncertain.

Another key Pentagon post has been filled by Richard Johnson, who was sworn in as deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction in March. During the Obama administration, Johnson served at the State Department working on the Iranian nuclear issue and on the National Security Council (NSC) as director for nonproliferation. In January, Leonor Tomero, former counsel for the House Armed Services Committee, was tapped to serve as deputy assistant director for nuclear and missile defense programs.

Laura Holgate was called on to lead a 60-day strategic planning process for the NSC, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, where she is the vice president for materials risk management. Holgate previously served as the senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction on the NSC during the Obama administration.

In her new role, Holgate will work closely with Mallory Stewart, who joined the NSC as senior director for arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation. Stewart was previously deputy assistant secretary of state for emerging security challenges and defense policy during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Overall, nominations and confirmations for positions in the Biden administration are moving at a pace not unusual as compared to the two previous administrations, during which these Senate-confirmed positions took anywhere from one to six months to be filled once a nomination was put forward.

This set of veteran arms control and nonproliferation officials will lead offices in the State and Defense departments and the White House central to U.S. efforts to address the daunting array of nuclear policy challenges now facing the Biden administration.

Some positions are filled but slow pace of appointments could begin to delay administration decisions on some nuclear policy issues.

U.S. Largest Seller in Flat Arms Market

April 2021
By Jeff Abramson

The United States accounts for an increasing share of global trade in major conventional weapons, according to the annual arms transfer survey by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The SIPRI report reviewed global conventional arms transfers through the end of 2020 and before the arrival of the Biden administration.

Missiles manufactured by Lockheed Martin are displayed during the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, DC, October 13, 2014. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)The volume of exports last year was exceptionally low in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Pieter D. Wezeman, one of the report co-authors, said in a March 15 statement accompanying the report that “[i]t is too early to say whether the period of rapid growth in arms transfers of the past two decades is over.”

SIPRI researchers measured the volume of trade with a trend-indicator value, a metric based on actual deliveries of major military equipment rather than purchasing announcements, and analyzed trends spanning the past decade. It found that the volume of international trade had decreased by 0.5 percent during 2016–2020 compared to five years earlier, but was 12 percent higher compared to 2006–2010.

United States accounted for 37 percent of exports over the past five years, which is an increase from 32 percent during 2011–2015, with identified exports of major arms to 96 states. Russia and China saw their respective shares of the global arms trade decline. Russia provided 20 percent of global arms, down from 26 percent in the previous period, with declines in transfers to India accounting for the major difference between these two periods. Russia accounted for 13 percent of arms supplied to states in the volatile Middle East region.

China, which is the fifth-largest arms supplier, was responsible for 5.2 percent of global arms transfers in 2016–2020, down slightly from its 5.6 percent share during 2011–2015. Pakistan accounted for more than one-third of the volume of China’s arms exports among Beijing’s 51 clients in the past five years.

SIPRI once again reported that Saudi Arabia continues to be the largest importer of major conventional weaponry, a position it has held for the past several years. The United States accounted for 79 percent of Riyadh’s weapons imports over the past five years, with Washington providing more than half of all weapons that were sold to states in the Middle East during that period. Ongoing policy reviews by the Biden administration concerning arms sales to nations where there are significant human rights concerns, including on multibillion-dollar sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, could affect U.S. arms transfers to these states in the future. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Human rights concerns, as well as arms purchases from Russia, may factor into future U.S. arms sales to other states in the region. Shortly after notifying Congress of a potential $197 million sale of 168 RAM Block 2 ship-defense missiles, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concerns to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry about Cairo’s possible procurement of Su-35 fighter aircraft from Moscow. Blinken has also indicated the Biden administration would make human rights central to U.S.-Egyptian bilateral relations. Egypt was the world's third-largest arms importer over the past five years, according to SIPRI.

In 2019 the United States suspended Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter program over its planned acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. In December 2020, Washington imposed sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for procuring the systems after Congress required it to do so in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. Partly due to the halted F-35 deliveries, as well as increases in its own defense production, Turkey moved from being the world’s sixth-largest arms importer to its 20th largest.

India’s possible acquisition of the Russian S-400 systems is also raising concerns among some U.S. lawmakers. In his March 20 press conference during a visit to counterparts in New Delhi, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he did address concerns about possible Indian acquisition of the S-400 system, but said that “the issue of sanctions is not one that's been discussed” since the weapons had not yet been acquired.

Shortly before the visit, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Austin urging him to address possible CAATSA sanctions should India purchase S-400s, as well as the country’s anti-democratic activities. In the letter, Menendez said, “I strongly encourage you to make clear that in all areas, including security cooperation, the U.S.-India partnership must rest on adherence to democratic values.”

Report finds U.S. accounted for 37 percent of global arms transfers from 2011–2015.

U.S. Advocates for Binding Rules on Behavior in Space

April 2021
By Nicholas Smith Adamopoulos

A U.S. space commander announced in February that officials from the State and Defense departments were in the process of drafting proposed language for a binding resolution regarding responsible behavior in space.​

“We’re going to prepare what we believe will be proposal language that will go to the UN and hopefully result in a binding resolution,” Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, commander of U.S. Space Command’s combined force space component, told Space News on Feb. 24. The United States is working with Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom on the proposal, she said.

The language is being drafted in response to UN General Assembly Resolution 75/36, which was proposed by the UK and approved in December. The resolution seeks to define responsible behavior in space and produce mechanisms for holding parties accountable for their violations, including for space debris that may result from destruction of objects in space. The United Nations is gathering input from member states until May 3 for inclusion in a report to the General Assembly on the subject.

According to Burt, a successful international agreement would need to define hostile behavior and improve the transparency of future space missions, particularly for dual-use technologies. The United States is not seeking to ban specific weapons, she said.

“The Chinese and the Russians have already put weapons in space. So, I think we’re way past having a conversation about regulating them per se, which is why we focus on norms of behavior,” said Burt.

Moscow and Beijing proposed in 2008 and again in 2014 a draft treaty on the prohibition of weapons in outer space.
The United States has repeatedly refused to engage on the proposal, in part because the Russian-Chinese proposal would not specifically limit terrestrially based anti-satellite (ASAT) systems. (See ACT, May 2020.)

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, prohibits military activities on celestial bodies, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. That treaty does not address other types of weapons that might be used to destroy space objects, including orbiting satellites.

Over the past year, U.S. Space Command has become increasingly concerned by ASAT weapons tests it asserts were conducted by Russia. Moscow, the command says, held tests in May and December 2020, as well as an alleged test of a different type of space-based weapon in July. (See ACT, May and September 2020.)

In response to UNGA resolution, U.S. plans to forward proposals for a multilateral agreement.

State Reviews Plans for New Tech Bureau

April 2021
By Shannon Bugos

Secretary of State Tony Blinken is in the midst of reviewing the mission and responsibilities of a new bureau for cybersecurity and emerging technology at the department that was approved by the Trump administration in January.

The Biden administration vowed to “lead in promoting shared norms and forge new agreements” on emerging technologies and cyberspace.  (Photo: Alastair Pike/AFP via Getty Images)Blinken “has affirmed his support to expand the department’s capacity to address cyberspace security and emerging technology policy issues,” a State Department spokesperson told Arms Control Today on March 16. “The department is committed to establishing a bureau following a review process that examines its mission, scope of responsibility, and placement.”

The State Department first notified Congress in June 2019 of its intent to create the Bureau of Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies. “In considering the growing national security challenge presented by cyber space and emerging technologies, the Department has determined that its efforts in these areas are not appropriately aligned or resourced,” said the notification document according to a June 4 report by The Hill.

In October 2020, Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that the State Department’s decision to create the bureau stemmed from “the idea that in addition to the need to ensure that the department is fully staffed and prepared for the ongoing challenges of cyberspace security diplomacy, we also need full-time specialist expertise to address the security challenges presented by rapid developments” in areas of emerging technology. Such areas, he said, include artificial intelligence and machine learning, quantum information science, nanotechnology, biological sciences, hypersonic systems, outer space, additive manufacturing, and directed energy.

But the State Department’s move to create this new bureau met resistance in June 2019 from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who put a hold on the notification to Congress. He argued that the bureau would focus too narrowly on cybersecurity and that its creation would go against “repeated warnings from Congress and outside experts that our approach to cyber issues needs to elevate engagement on economic interests and internet freedoms together with security.”

Nevertheless, on Jan. 7, 2021, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approved the bureau’s creation. The bureau is critical in efforts to meet “the challenges to U.S. national security presented by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and other cyber and emerging technology competitors and adversaries,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a Jan. 28 report, however, that concluded that, “as of the date of this report,” the State Department had not established the bureau. This report followed one from September 2020, which found that the State Department had not involved other federal agencies in plans to develop the new bureau.

“Without involving other agencies on its reorganization plan, [the State Department] lacks assurance that it will effectively achieve its goals for establishing this bureau, and it increases the risk of negative effects from unnecessary fragmentation, overlap, and duplication of cyber diplomacy efforts,” the GAO found in its Sept. 2020 report.

According to the GAO reports, the State Department plan includes appointing a coordinator and ambassador at large to lead the new bureau, who would report to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs. The bureau would have a projected budget of $20.8 million and a staff of 80 full-time employees, who would come from the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues and the Office of Emerging Security Challenges within the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden appointed Anne Neuberger, former cybersecurity director at the National Security Agency, to serve as the first deputy national cybersecurity adviser for cyber and emerging technology.

The Biden administration’s interim national security strategy guidance released on March 3 emphasizes the threats posed by emerging technologies, which “remain largely ungoverned by laws or norms designed to center rights and democratic values, foster cooperation, establish guardrails against misuse or malign action, and reduce uncertainty and manage the risk that competition will lead to conflict.” The Biden administration vowed to “lead in promoting shared norms and forge new agreements” on emerging technologies and cyberspace.

New administration seeks to promote shared norms and new agreements on emerging technologies and cyberspace.


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