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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
December 2020

Arms Control Today December 2020

Edition Date: 
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Cover Image: 

Disputes Continue at UN First Committee


December 2020
By Anna Kim

The 75th session of the UN General Assembly First Committee on disarmament and international security, held remotely this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, revealed growing global concern over the decline of arms control and rising tensions between nations, particularly those armed with nuclear weapons.

South Korean Amb. Cho Hyun speaks to the UN Security Council in 2019. At this year's meeting of the UN General Assembly First Committee, he expressed hopes that a peace process with North Korea could progress. (Photo: Evan Schneider/United Nations)The European Union, Russia, and South Korea noted the challenges COVID-19 posed to nuclear disarmament, including the postponement of treaty-related meetings such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s pending review conference, now deferred again from an already rescheduled early 2021 date. They also encouraged commitment to collective action and multilateralism. Others noted that the pandemic should raise awareness of biological threats and drive action at next year’s Biological Weapons Convention review conference.

Tension between nuclear-armed powers was highlighted by separate, unsuccessful U.S.-Russian talks on an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In the First Committee, Russia reiterated that Moscow stands ready to extend the pact without preconditions, a move that would “buy us time to consider future approaches to arms control.” The United States responded by reaffirming its pursuit of an agreement that “addresses all nuclear warheads” and expressing concern with Russia’s investment in “novel nuclear delivery systems and nuclear weapons that are not constrained by New START.” The impasse suggests that the two sides will not resolve the matter before the end of the Trump administration in January 2021.

Multiple states continued to express concern over the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 arms control agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s subsequent buildup of low-enriched uranium exceeding treaty limits.

EU nations said they “deeply regret” the U.S. decision to withdraw and reimpose sanctions on Iran and “strongly urge Iran to refrain from any further actions that are inconsistent with its JCPOA commitments and return to full JCPOA implementation without delay.”

Unlike in 2019, Iran did not mention its enrichment activities or their reversibility. The United States refrained from commenting on the JCPOA at all during its general debate remarks.

Opinions were divided on how to address North Korea’s nuclear program and security on the Korean peninsula. China blamed the United States for “the deadlock of the [U.S.-North Korean] dialogue regarding the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula” and asserted its opposition to “unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction beyond the mandates” of UN Security Council resolutions.

The EU and some European countries, in contrast, expressed concern over North Korea’s missile launches and repeated their support for denuclearization. Poland called North Korean denuclearization “an absolute imperative and priority for the entire international community.” South Korea took a more optimistic tone in its statement. Cho Hyun, South Korean ambassador to the United Nations, said that “[his] government’s resolve to advance the peace process remains unwavering and [South Korean leaders] sincerely hope that [North Korea] will return to the negotiating table.”

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also received significant attention during general debate in the wake of the August 2020 poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, with a Novichok nerve agent. Russia has denied responsibility for the attack.

Absent verifiable attribution of the attack to Russia by the OPCW, the United States called on Moscow to “fulfill its obligations under the [CWC] by completely declaring and destroying its chemical weapons program under international verification.” The EU said that Russia should “fully cooperate” with the OPCW to ensure an “impartial international investigation.”

The use of chemical weapons in Syria also drew attention, with Germany urging that “all those who continue to support the Assad regime and to provide cover for its crimes—in particular the Russian Federation—[should] finally live up to their responsibility.”

Russia did not respond directly to criticism for the Navalny incident, instead introducing a resolution to update the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (SGM). This was met with significant resistance by other states, which accused Russia of attempting to undermine the SGM’s authority.

The 2020 First Committee session approved 72 draft resolutions and decisions, but rejected two: Russia’s resolution on the SGM and one on the 2021 Disarmament Commission session. The votes revealed continuing disunity between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states, with all nine nuclear-armed states voting against a resolution on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) even as the treaty reached the 50 accessions needed to enter into force in January 2021.

The United States cast one of two votes, along with North Korea, against the resolution on the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), citing unproven claims that Russia and China continue to conduct nuclear weapons test explosions. This was the first time the United States did not abstain from the vote, which fueled concerns that the Trump administration could be planning to resume nuclear weapons testing, as The Washington Post first reported in May. The United States was also the sole vote against the resolution on the Arms Trade Treaty for the second year in a row. President Donald Trump announced in April 2019 that Washington would drop out of the treaty.

Resolutions in support of the implementation of the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions passed with no votes against, representing continued widespread support for those initiatives. The resolution on a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East also passed 169–2–1, with only the United States and Israel voting against it.

As in previous years, First Committee member states were unable to reach consensus on a legal approach to regulating arms in outer space. Five resolutions were introduced on the topic, which reflected highly varied perspectives on disarmament. The United States, Russia, and China each accused others of having intentions to weaponize space while emphasizing their own commitment to developing a legal infrastructure. The First Committee also discussed cybersecurity and emerging technologies.

Russia Fails to Weaken UN Chemical Weapons Investigations

A Russian effort to undermine the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of the Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (SGM) was rejected by the UN General Assembly First Committee on Nov. 4. Moscow had offered the resolution and called for a review of SGM guidelines ahead of the First Committee vote, arguing that the guidelines had not been updated since the late 1990s.

The mechanism grants the secretary-general authority to launch an independent investigation into alleged incidents of chemical or biological weapons use on request by a UN member state. For example, the SGM investigated the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, prior to Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s UN representative, said the SGM has “clearly become obsolete.”

The European Union criticized Russia’s efforts as misguided and politically driven. Speaking on behalf of the group, Germany recalled an attempt by Russia in December 2019 to criticize further strengthening of the mechanism, arguing that doing so would create a de facto legally binding verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention. “Against this background,” Germany’s representative told the First Committee on Nov. 4, “it seems unlikely that the motive behind this resolution is to strengthen [the SGM].”

“It is not immediately clear why there would be an urgency to review the guidelines and principles again,” he added, noting that Russia’s proposed resolution threatened the SGM’s independence by subordinating it to the UN Security Council. The resolution proposed that the Security Council play a greater role in the mechanism’s work, specifically with respect to investigating incidents of biological weapons use.

The resolution failed to pass the First Committee with 31 votes in favor, 63 against, and 67 abstentions.—JULIA MASTERSON

The annual UN session on disarmament and international security reflected the full range of arms control disputes.

U.S. Conducts Successful ICBM Intercept Test


December 2020

The U.S. Navy conducted a successful intercept test of an ICBM target using an Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile interceptor on Nov. 16, according to a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announcement.

The USS John Finn (foreground) exercises with an Australian destroyer in 2018. Based in Hawaii, the U.S. ship launched an SM-3 interceptor that successfully destroyed an ICBM target. (Photo: Jesus Sepulveda/U.S. Marine Corps)A threat-representative ICBM target was launched from Kwajalein Atoll toward the ocean northeast of Hawaii. The USS John Finn, a destroyer equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System, launched the interceptor which destroyed the target warhead, the MDA said. The test modeled a potential scenario for the defense of Hawaii.

The test, originally scheduled for May but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, fulfilled a congressional mandate to test the SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM target before the end of 2020 as required by the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It was the sixth SM-3 Block IIA test from a vessel equipped with the Aegis BMD system.

The test marked the third test of the U.S. missile defense system against an ICBM target, all of which have been successful. The previous two tests were conducted using ground-based interceptors as part of the ground-based midcourse defense system.

Vice Admiral Jon Hill called the test “an incredible accomplishment and critical milestone for the Aegis BMD SM-3 Block IIA program” and “a step in the process of determining its feasibility as part of an architecture for layered defense of the homeland.”

Critics have warned that increasing the number of U.S. interceptors capable of intercepting ICBMs could spur Russia and China to enhance the size and capability of their nuclear arsenals.—ANNA KIM

U.S. Conducts Successful ICBM Intercept Test

NATO Completes Annual Nuclear Exercise


December 2020

The Netherlands hosted NATO’s annual nuclear exercise in October, which included the German Air Force practicing delivery of U.S. nuclear bombs believed to be stored at Büchel Air Base, according to reports.

A German Eurofighter taxis at Nörvenich Air Base in 2013. The base was used as a site for this year's NATO exercise Steadfast Noon. (Photo: Neuwieser/Flickr)“Today’s exercise shows that allies are determined to ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg while visiting Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands for the exercise on Oct. 16. “The purpose of NATO’s nuclear deterrent is not to provoke a conflict but to preserve peace, deter aggression, and prevent coercion.”

This year, the training flights took place over parts of western Europe and the North Sea.

The annual exercise, known as Steadfast Noon, is designed to practice and assess NATO’s nuclear capabilities deployed in Europe. It is planned far in advance and involves more than 50 aircraft from several allied air forces. The aircraft do not carry live bombs during the exercise flights.

The United States deploys an estimated 20 B61 tactical bombs each at Büchel and Volkel air bases, according to the Federation of American Scientists. About 100 U.S. tactical bombs are believed to be deployed at bases in Belgium, Italy, and Turkey.

German reports said that this year’s nuclear exercise involved the Nörvenich Air Base, which is an alternative site for the nuclear bombs stored at Büchel.

The Russian Defense Ministry released a statement on Oct. 23 criticizing the exercise. “Such actions lead to a lowering of the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, provoke a further increase in tension along the Russia-NATO contact line, and negatively affect the level of trust in Europe,” said the ministry.—SHANNON BUGOS

NATO Completes Annual Nuclear Exercise

Pandemic Delays CTBTO Leadership Vote


December 2020

Members of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) have been forced to postpone deliberations that were scheduled to take place Nov. 25–27 to select the next head of the organization due to another COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdown in Vienna.

Two candidates are under consideration: current CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo and Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office. States were to have chosen who would serve as the executive secretary of the $128 million organization as of July 31, 2021, when Zerbo will complete his second four-year term. A new date for the leadership selection meeting has not been chosen.
—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Pandemic Delays CTBTO Leadership Vote

New START Deal to Wait for Biden


December 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration and Russia signaled a willingness in November to reach a deal involving an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and a freeze on all U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads following the U.S. presidential election, but the two sides remained at odds about the specific terms of such a deal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a meeting in Italy in February. On Nov. 12, he said that the question of extending New START would need to wait for the U.S. presidential election to be resolved.  (Photo: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)As a result, the fate of the treaty likely rests on Russia and the incoming Biden administration resolving the issue. President-elect Joe Biden has expressed support for the treaty’s extension. According to a Nov. 25 Reuters article, there is continued debate among Biden's advisers over how long the extension should be. The treaty allows for an extension of up to five years so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents agree to it.

After taking office, Biden would have just 16 days to seal an extension before the treaty expires on Feb. 5, 2021.

“The Russian Federation is certainly making a calculation based upon whether they want to lock into agreement with an extension now or wait until after Jan. 20 to see if there is a better offer that they can possibly acquire,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on Nov. 9. “I think that’s still a little bit of a gamble, perhaps less so than it might have been two weeks ago.”

Biegun said that stumbling blocks include how to define a nuclear warhead under a freeze and the U.S. demand that a freeze be verified. Nevertheless, he said, “as far as this administration is concerned, we’re prepared to go forward with an agreement.”

The following day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reiterated that Russia stands prepared to extend New START and agree to a freeze on all warheads for one year so long as the United States puts forward no additional conditions, particularly with respect to verification of the freeze. But he remained pessimistic that a deal would be reached.

“As of today, as it was before U.S. election, we don’t see a basis to reach such an agreement. There’s nothing new in [the] U.S. position,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Nov. 12 that he has seen “rather fidgety comments from Washington” regarding the fate of New START. “Considering the current commotion in the United States caused by the ongoing vote recount, lawsuits, and other perturbations, we cannot expect any coherent proposals from either [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s people or Joe Biden’s team,” said Lavrov. “So, we will wait until the dust settles.”

In October, the United States proposed a politically binding one-year extension of New START and a one-year freeze on all U.S. and Russian nuclear warhead levels. Russia, which had previously called for a five-year extension of New START as allowed by the treaty, proposed a one-year extension and the concept of a warhead freeze, but rejected any verification of the freeze, in particular portal monitoring, at this time. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Lavrov said that as part of the warhead freeze, the Trump administration is demanding that Russia “recount” the warheads “and check which category these warheads belong to and immediately establish control over the facilities producing these warheads.”

“We have already been in a situation when American inspectors sat outside the checkpoints of our military plants
in the 1990s,” Lavrov added. “There is no coming back to this system.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to aggressively call on China to join arms control talks with the United States and Russia.

The administration had earlier insisted that China immediately participate in trilateral arms control talks with the United States and Russia, but Beijing repeatedly rejected the demand. The Trump administration later dropped it as a condition for considering an extension of New START. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

“China has stubbornly refused to date to participate in those discussions, but as we approach the review conference of the [nuclear]Nonproliferation Treaty next year, I believe pressure will continue to grow on China to enter those discussions,” Biegun said.

At the EU Consortium on Nonproliferation and Disarmament Conference on Nov. 12, Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, echoed Biegun.

“It is becoming obvious to everyone that Beijing is not taking seriously its responsibility as a nuclear power to engage in meaningful arms control negotiations, and it continues to shun arms control negotiations with us on effective measures to prevent a new nuclear arms race spiral,” he said.

Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, replied to Ford by saying that Beijing has communicated with Washington by phone, email, and letters.

Fu also said that he had talked directly with Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special envoy for arms control. “We even had a phone conversation, even though that conversation was not very pleasant,” he said.

He emphasized China’s view that “the immediate priority now is to urge the United States to respond as soon as possible to Russia’s call for the unconditional extension of the New START.” When asked if China would join trilateral arms control discussions if the United States and Russia agree to reduce their nuclear arsenals, Fu replied, “I would say that is a big ‘if’—if the U.S. agrees to reduce.”

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

Despite signs of flexibility in talks on extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, a deal appears unlikely before the Trump administration is replaced.

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