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– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
April 2021
Edition Date: 
Thursday, April 1, 2021
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The UK’s Nuclear U-Turn


April 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

In recent years, the United Kingdom has touted itself as one of the most transparent of the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and its leaders leaned heavily on the fact that it was reducing the size of its nuclear force.

The HMS Vengeance returning to its homeport on the River Clyde in Scotland in 2007. Vengeance is one of four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines operated by the British Royal Navy. Photo: Tam McDonald/MODBut in a major reversal that will complicate efforts to strengthen the NPT and exacerbate tensions with other nuclear-armed states, the UK announced on March 16 that it will move to increase its total nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling by 44 percent, to 260, and reduce transparency about its nuclear arsenal.

At the 2010 and 2015 NPT review conferences, UK officials said they would reduce their force to no more than 180 warheads on their four Vanguard-class strategic missile submarines. Open source estimates put the current size of the UK arsenal at 195 warheads. They described this decision as a contribution toward Article VI of the treaty, to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

So, why the change? Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy attributes increasing the warhead ceiling to “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats.”

But the review fails explain how adding 80 warheads to the arsenal will enhance deterrence against these ill-defined threats, nor can UK diplomats explain how the increase strengthens the NPT. The UK now joins China and perhaps Russia as NPT-recognized nuclear-armed states planning to increase the size of their warhead stockpiles.

Tensions between the major powers are certainly high, but it is irresponsible to react by engaging in nuclear arms racing. Truly “responsible” nuclear-armed states seek to reduce tensions and increase stability by advancing serious arms control, risk reduction, and disarmament measures based on the principles of transparency and restraint.

Making matters worse, the UK also announced that it will “no longer give public figures for [its] operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers.”

Like the United States, the past UK commitment to transparency about its nuclear forces has set it apart from other nuclear-armed states. Both have rightly criticized China for its excessive nuclear secrecy. Such opacity is irresponsible and unworthy of a democracy.

The new UK policy direction not only violates its NPT disarmament obligations, but it is completely out of step with U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in U.S. national security strategy. Biden has also recently said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons.”

The UK government is headed in the opposite direction on new nuclear weapons too. The government, which claims it has an “independent” nuclear arsenal even though it depends heavily on U.S. support for its nuclear weapons program, is lobbying the U.S. Congress to appropriate U.S. taxpayer funds for a newly designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead, dubbed the W93.

This warhead, which the Trump administration proposed as a third type of SLBM warhead, is not only costly but unnecessary, given that the United States already has two SLBM warheads and has recently invested billions on refurbishment programs to extend their service lives. The W93 warhead is also unnecessary for the British nuclear force, which does not need a newly designed U.S. warhead to maintain its sea-based nuclear force.

Pursuit of the W93 also violates the Obama administration’s 2010 policy, which stated that the United States “will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities." Although a decade old, this remains the right policy for security and nonproliferation reasons.

The best way for the White House and members of Congress to support their allies in London is to remind them that nuclear buildups and new nuclear weapons are unnecessary strategically and unhealthy for international security and U.S.-UK relations.

The new UK nuclear policy will also complicate Biden administration efforts to pursue further bilateral arms control and reduction measures with Russia, which wants future arrangements to take into account the arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states, especially the UK and France. One option should be for China, France, and the UK to agree to cap their arsenals and provide more transparency regarding their nuclear stockpiles and doctrines, as Washington and Moscow move forward on further nuclear cuts.

The approaching 10th NPT review conference was already going to be difficult without the UK adding itself to the list of states acting inconsistently with its treaty commitments. The United States, along with other responsible nations, will need to redouble efforts to secure consensus on a meaningful action plan that holds the UK and the other nuclear-weapon states, plus the other parties to the NPT, accountable to their disarmament and nonproliferation obligations.

In recent years, the United Kingdom has touted itself as one of the most transparent of the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and its leaders leaned heavily on the fact that it was reducing the size of its nuclear force.

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

ENDNOTES

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

ENDNOTES

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)

UK to Increase Cap on Nuclear Warhead Stockpile


April 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

In a significant departure from an earlier pledge, the United Kingdom announced in March that it will raise the ceiling on its nuclear warhead stockpile by more than 40 percent above its previous target and would no longer publish information about the number of warheads it maintains in an operational status.

The HMS Vengeance returning to its homeport on the River Clyde in Scotland in 2007. Vengeance is one of four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines operated by the British Royal Navy. (Photo: Tam McDonald/MOD)The decision prompted concern around the world and raised questions about the UK’s commitment to its nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

London will raise the ceiling on its overall stockpile to 260 warheads by the middle of the decade, according to an integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy published March 16. The new ceiling is a 44 percent increase above the level of 180 warheads that was first announced in the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and reiterated again in 2015. (See ACT, December 2015; November 2010.)

The UK currently has about 195 nuclear warheads, of which 120 are operational, according to an estimate by researchers at the Federation of American Scientists. The UK deploys its entire nuclear arsenal aboard four Vanguard-class submarines, each of which is armed with Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. At least one submarine is always at sea on deterrence patrol. London maintains that a submarine on patrol would require several days’ notice to launch a missile.

The integrated review attributed the change in the warhead stockpile to “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats” and cited “risks to the UK from major nuclear armed states, emerging nuclear states, and state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” But the document did not provide further detail about these threats.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab justified the plan to increase the warhead stockpile as “the ultimate insurance policy against the worst threat from hostile states” in an interview with the BBC.

UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace told the BBC on March 21 that the change is a response to what “the Russians and others have been up to in the last few years,” specifically citing Russian investments in ballistic missile defense and new offensive capabilities.

The integrated review also states that the UK will “no longer give public figures for our operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers” as such “ambiguity complicates the calculations of potential aggressors, reduces the risk of deliberate nuclear use by those seeking a first-strike advantage, and contributes to strategic stability.”

The Johnson government’s decision to increase the warhead stockpile was controversial within the UK.

Keir Starmer, the head of the Labour Party, said the plan “breaks the goal of successive prime ministers and cross-party efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile. It doesn’t explain, when, why, or for what strategic purpose.”

Foreign governments also criticized the new direction in policy.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on March 18 that “this move is at odds with London’s many statements about its commitment to obligations to promote nuclear disarmament under the NPT.”

“The British leadership’s decisions underscore the urgent need to directly involve U.S. nuclear allies in the efforts to reduce and limit nuclear weapons, which Russia never ends to point out,” she said.

Asked about the UK decision to grow its nuclear stockpile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “We don’t want nuclear weapons arsenals to grow. If you don’t want that to happen, you can’t expand them.”

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, raised similar concerns in a March 17 press briefing. “[W]e do express our concern at the UK’s decision to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal, which is contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the NPT,” he said. “It could have a damaging impact on global stability and efforts to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons.”

But Dujarric walked his remarks back the next day, saying that “we’re not expressing a legal opinion” but rather the view that the UK “announcement is not consistent with the disarmament commitments…all nuclear-weapon states have undertaken.”

A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on March 16 that the NPT “doesn’t require us to reduce the number of warheads. All of our actions are consistent with our nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.”

“The 260 figure is a ceiling, not a target,” the spokesperson added. “We will continue to keep this under review in the light of the international security environment and make adjustments as appropriate.”

But skeptics warned that London will need to do more to assuage concerns ahead of the NPT review conference, now scheduled to take place in August after being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (See ACT, November 2020.)

“The UK will need to clarify how it plans to contribute to and lead on nuclear disarmament amidst these changes in the stockpile number,” said Heather Williams, a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lecturer at King’s College London.

The change in policy comes as London lobbies Washington to move forward with development of a newly designed, high-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, the W93.

The current warhead for the UK’s Trident ballistic missiles is believed to be based on the U.S. W76 warhead. Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in February 2020 that the UK has “a parallel replacement warhead program,” although London is responsible for the design and production of its warhead fleet.

The Guardian reported in August that Wallace sent a letter to Congress in April 2020 encouraging funding for the W93. “Congressional funding in [fiscal year 2021] for the W93 program will ensure that we continue to deepen the unique nuclear relationship between our two countries, enabling the United Kingdom to provide safe and assured continuous-at-sea deterrence for decades to come,” he wrote.

Congress in December appropriated the Trump administration’s request of $53 million in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate work on the W93, although not without controversy. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

A new defense policy review results in raising warhead ceiling by 44 percent.

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.

IAEA Backs Off Iran Resolution


April 2021
By Julia Masterson

In early March and just days after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director-general reached a temporary agreement with Iran to help the agency maintain essential oversight of Iran’s nuclear program, three key European powers advanced a resolution to the IAEA Board of Governors that would have censured Iran on the safeguards issue. The states were later persuaded to withdraw the proposal out of concern it would undermine prospects for restoring compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

A meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors at the Vienna International Center in Austria.  (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)The three European members of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), circulated the draft resolution censuring Iran ahead of the quarterly Board of Governors meeting, which was held March 1–5 in Vienna. Their resolution expressed deep concern with Tehran’s recent steps to limit its safeguards arrangements with the agency that are mandated by the nuclear deal.

On Feb. 23, Iran announced that it would suspend implementation of the additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement and would reduce compliance with certain other monitoring mechanisms required by the accord. Tehran did so in accordance with a December 2020 law that obligates the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to rachet up nuclear activities in violation of the JCPOA until Iran’s demands for U.S. compliance with the JCPOA, including sanctions relief, are met. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

The additional protocol provides the IAEA with information and an expanded set of tools to verify the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. It grants the agency further insight into all elements of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle, permits inspectors to collect environmental samples from declared and undeclared sites, and allows the IAEA to conduct complementary access visits on short notice to investigate any instances of suspicious activity.

To prevent the planned suspension from becoming a full-blown safeguards crisis, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi traveled to Tehran on Feb. 21, ahead of Iran’s announcement. With Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the AEOI, the three reached a temporary bilateral arrangement whereby the agency can continue certain additional verification activities in Iran for three months. Iran will gather and store certain information during that time and provide it to the agency if sanctions relief is granted.

Iran’s decision to reduce monitoring marked its most recent step and one of the most significant steps taken to limit compliance with the JCPOA since the United States withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed stringent economic sanctions on Iran. Tehran began violating the deal one year later, in 2019, but maintains that all breaches of the accord, including its reduction in monitoring, will be reversed if JCPOA sanctions are lifted.

The European draft resolution condemned Iran for suspending the additional protocol and further called on Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA investigation into certain outstanding issues related to Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Those outstanding issues were detailed in a Feb. 23 IAEA report stemming from an ongoing, multiyear agency investigation into Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities and are separate from the nuclear deal.

Several states, including members of the European Union, opposed the European draft resolution because it married Iran’s legal obligation to comply with IAEA investigations into its past nuclear activities with its steps taken under the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Tehran vehemently opposed the draft resolution and, in a paper submitted to the IAEA Board of Governors, warned that adoption of the resolution would signal an end to the temporary monitoring arrangement between Iran and the IAEA. After the Europeans scrapped the resolution, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman remarked March 4 that “today’s development can maintain the path of diplomacy opened by Iran and the IAEA and pave the way for full implementation by all parties” to the JCPOA.

The outcome keeps open the door for Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the United States to continue to try to reach agreement on a pathway to restore U.S. and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave an interview Feb. 21 during which he affirmed that Iran remains interested in restoring the JCPOA, despite Iran’s planned reduction in monitoring.

“There is a path forward, with a logical sequence,” he wrote in a Twitter post that day, referring to Iran’s belief that the United States should commit to the JCPOA and fulfill its obligations under the deal, including by lifting sanctions. “Iran will reciprocate immediately by reversing its remedial measures,” he added.

According to diplomatic sources in Vienna, the United States played a role in convincing the Europeans to withdraw their proposed resolution, in part because the Biden administration signaled support for distinguishing between the IAEA safeguards investigation and Iran’s decision to suspend the JCPOA monitoring provisions.

Louis L. Bono, the U.S. representative to the IAEA, remarked in his March 4 statement before the Board of Governors that “while these safeguards issues are a separate topic [from the JCPOA], resolving them will also be essential for establishing confidence in Iran’s nuclear related assurances.” He said the administration “remain[s] ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.”

A European resolution to censure Iran was withdrawn out of concern it could upset efforts to restore compliance with the JCPOA.

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.

North Korea Rebuffs U.S. Outreach


April 2021
By Sang-Min Kim

Diplomatic communications between North Korea and the United States remain stalled despite early outreach efforts from the Biden administration aimed at reviving talks on denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula.

Smoke emssions observed at the thermal plant at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear weapons complex, March 10. (Source: Maxar/38 North)U.S. officials confirmed in March that the leadership in Pyongyang did not respond to several private messages delivered through multiple channels from the administration. But Pyongyang said publicly that it will “counter the U.S. on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill.”

Although the content of the Biden administration’s outreach was not disclosed, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on March 15 that the goal was to “reduce the risk of escalation.”

Choe Son Hui, the North Korean first vice foreign minister, labeled U.S. President Joe Biden’s outreach attempts as a “time-delaying trick” and stated on March 18 that no bilateral “contact and dialogue of any kind are possible unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy” toward North Korea.

The attempts to communicate with North Korea preceded a visit to Japan and South Korea by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Blinken, Austin, South Korean officials, and Japanese officials all have affirmed that the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missiles issues are a priority.

In March 16 comments in Tokyo, Blinken said the United States would work toward the “complete denuclearization of North Korea.” Denuclearization was not referenced in the joint statement issued by Blinken and Austin and their South Korean counterparts.

Blinken also stated on March 18 before his meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska that China has a “critical role in working to convince North Korea to pursue denuclearization” because of its unique economic relationship and a “clear self-interest” in regional stability.

Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled on March 22, four days after Blinken’s statement, that he sent a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about China’s willingness to “preserve peace and stability on the peninsula so as to make new contributions to regional peace, stability, development, and prosperity” alongside North Korea and “other related parties.”

Kim Yo Jong, sister to the North Korean leader, also criticized the U.S.-South Korean nine-day, computerized command post military exercise on March 16, eight days after the start of the event. She warned the United States to “refrain from causing a stink at its first step” and that “war exercises and dialogue…can never exist together.”

The joint exercise was part of the annual March and August exercises and was described by U.S. and South Korean officials as “defensive in nature.” These exercises also provide a space in South Korea’s perspective to prepare for the transfer of wartime operational control from an American to South Korean four-star general.

Kim Yo Jong pointedly contended that to expect “flexible judgment” is unintelligent when the exercises have been aimed against North Korea. In response to the March exercise, she threatened to disband organizations dedicated to inter-Korean talks that involved political cooperation, such as the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, and economic tourism ventures such as the Kumgangsan International Tourism Bureau.

Kim Yo Jong stated that a repeal of the 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement, which created air-, land-, and sea-based tension-reduction measures such as a five-kilometer buffer zone, could happen because of South Korean “provocative acts.” South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook responded to Kim, saying her statement was “regrettable” and argued that South Korea is “prepared against any type of contingency.”

In move possibly intended to reinforce Kim Yo Jong’s message, on March 24 North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles approximately 300 miles over the East Sea, the first such tests in nearly a year. The launch of the missiles is a violation of UN Security Council resolution 1718.

Meanwhile, new satellite imagery indicates continued activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center. According to experts at 38 North, the thermal plant, which supplies steam to the Radiochemical Laboratory (RCL) that extracts plutonium from spent reactor fuel, has shown signs of operation after a nearly two-year hiatus. Smoke emissions were detected beginning at least Feb. 25 and continuing into early March. Activity was also detected at one of the laboratory’s cooling units.

According to 38 North, however, it is “unclear whether the North Koreans have started a plutonium recovering campaign or are simply preparing to process radioactive waste” for now. The 38 North satellite imagery of the Uranium Enrichment Plant Complex on March 10 also shows signs of ongoing operations.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi said on March 1 that, “at present, there are no indications of the production of enriched uranium at the reported centrifuge enrichment facility at Yongbyon,” but there are internal construction activities at the experimental light-water reactor and evidence of activity at a suspected second enrichment site at Kangson.

Pyongyang unmoved by early Biden administration overtures for resumed talks designed to “reduce the risk of escalation.”

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