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"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
June 2021
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
Cover Image: 

Engage China on Arms Control? Yes, and Here’s How


June 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

For more than six decades, the United States has been worried about China’s regional influence, military activities—and nuclear potential. For instance, in 1958, U.S. officials considered using nuclear weapons to thwart Chinese artillery strikes on islands controlled by Taiwan, according to recently leaked documents. Then, as now, a nuclear conflict between the United States and China would be devastating.

 (Photo by TEH ENG KOON / AFP/Getty Images)“There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state,” Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, warned in February.

Worse yet, as tensions between the United States and China continue to grow, many members of Congress, along with the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment, are hyping China’s ongoing nuclear weapons modernization effort as a major new threat.

During testimony before Congress in April, Richard claimed that China’s military is engaged in a “breathtaking expansion” of its arsenal of some 300 nuclear weapons. He argued that this requires fortifying the U.S. nuclear armory, which is already 10 times larger than China’s.

Instead, U.S. policymakers need to avoid steps that stimulate nuclear competition with China and pursue serious talks designed to prevent miscalculation and reduce the risk of conflict. The United States also needs to develop a realistic strategy for involving China and the other major nuclear-armed states in the nuclear disarmament process.

According to U.S. projections, China could increase the size of its arsenal. It is deploying new solid-fueled missiles that can be launched more quickly than its older liquid-fueled missiles, increasing the number of its long-range missiles that are armed with multiple warheads, putting more of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on mobile trucks, and continuing to improve its sea-based nuclear force.

These moves, while concerning, do not justify alarmism. China is not seeking to match U.S. nuclear capabilities. Rather, it is clearly seeking to diversify its nuclear forces so it can maintain a nuclear deterrent that can withstand potential U.S. nuclear or conventional strikes.

Beijing’s nuclear plans are also likely designed to hedge against advancing U.S. missile defense capabilities, such as the sea-based Standard Missile-3 Block IIA system, which could potentially compromise China’s nuclear retaliatory potential.

Although China’s arsenal may be smaller, it is still dangerous. Beijing’s nuclear modernization efforts make it all the more important to pursue meaningful progress on nuclear arms control.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed that the Biden administration will “pursue arms control to reduce the dangers from China’s modern and growing nuclear arsenal,” but has not explained how it will do so.

Leaders in Beijing claim to support nondiscriminatory disarmament and minimum deterrence, yet they have said they will engage on arms control only when U.S. and Russian leaders achieve deeper cuts in their much-larger nuclear arsenals. The United States and Russia can and should do more to cut their bloated nuclear stockpiles. But as a nuclear-weapon state party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, China is also obligated to help end the arms race and achieve disarmament sooner rather than later.

Yet, simply demanding, as the Trump administration did, that China join the arms control process is a recipe for failure. Instead, the Biden administration should adopt a more pragmatic approach that takes into account China’s concerns, and Chinese leaders need to be prepared to respond with constructive ideas.

To start, U.S. President Joe Biden could propose a new bilateral nuclear security dialogue designed to clarify each other’s nuclear postures and establish better lines of communication that could reduce the risks of miscalculation in a crisis.

The U.S. State Department should invite Chinese diplomats to join in developing a plan for fortifying the existing dialogue on nuclear weapons policy and risk reduction among the five nuclear-weapon states: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For instance, these states could consider joint arms control verification exercises based on the U.S.-Russian experience and negotiate a common system for reporting on their respective nuclear weapons holdings. They could also formulate a joint understanding that cybercapabilities will not be used to interfere with other states’ nuclear command and control.

An even more ambitious approach would be for Washington and Moscow to propose that China, France, and the UK freeze the size of their nuclear stockpiles so long as the United States and Russia continue to achieve deeper verifiable reductions in their arsenals.

At the same time, the Biden team must resist calls for new U.S. weapons deployments, including land-based, intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Asia, that would compound nuclear tensions with China and give Beijing a cynical excuse to expand its arsenal.

Engaging China on effective arms control and disarmament will be difficult and will take time, but it is necessary because there are no winners in an unconstrained arms race.

For more than six decades, the United States has been worried about China’s regional influence, military activities—and nuclear potential.

Negotiating With North Korea: An interview with former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun

June 2021

For more than two years, Stephen Biegun was U.S. deputy secretary of state and the top envoy executing President Donald Trump’s highly personal and ultimately unsuccessful diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Biegun had eight meetings with North Korean officials and accompanied Trump in 2019 to meetings with Kim in Hanoi and also at the Demilitarized Zone. In his first interview since leaving government, Biegun discussed his views on what the last administration tried to accomplish and what went wrong and offered some advice to the Biden administration. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Arms Control Today: When Trump took office in 2017, the outgoing Obama administration warned that North Korea's nuclear program posed one of the most significant security threats. It remains so today. As the Biden administration prepares to adjust U.S. policy to deal with the North’s nuclear and missile arsenal, what advice would you offer? 

Stephen Biegun (L), the U.S. special representative for North Korea during the Trump administration, answers questions from the press after talks on North Korea's nuclear activities with Lee Do-hoon (R), South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs, at the foreign ministry in Seoul in December 2018. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)Stephen Biegun: The administration has begun to roll out its recent policy review, and so we're starting to understand how they intend to proceed. During the transition between the two administrations, we did a very thorough, deep dive on a number of issues, but none more so than North Korea. As the former special representative for North Korea, I and my team sat down with President-elect Joe Biden's team to walk them through where we were and really to share almost every detail of our interactions with the North Koreans, certainly everything that was available to us. It looks to me like the Biden policy is largely a continuation of what the negotiating team in the [Trump] State Department was trying to attain from the North Koreans, which is an agreement on a path toward denuclearization with a certain endpoint that is complete denuclearization but that we can structure along the way with some flexibility. We wanted to move in parallel on other things that might help open the aperture for progress like people-to-people exchanges, greater transparency, and confidence building on the Korean peninsula. I think the Biden administration's conclusions are logical and, frankly, are the best among the choices that are available to any administration. 

That said, it's not significantly different than much of what's been tried in the past, and so it begs the question whether or not one can expect any different outcome. I think the key factor in whether or not the United States will make progress with North Korea rests with whether or not the North Korean government is prepared to go down this course. That's the challenge that we confronted in the Trump administration. We eventually came to the conclusion that the North Koreans simply weren't prepared to do what the two leaders had laid out. So I'd advise them to start with the establishment of communication, which I think they have been making some progress doing. Get a reliable channel for that communication going forward, so that we can have a more sustained set of diplomatic engagements.

ACT: In April, the U.S. intelligence community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” report concluded that "Kim Jong Un views nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against foreign intervention and believes that over time he will gain international acceptance and respect as a nuclear power." Do you share this assessment? 

Biegun: I think it's less important what the North Koreans think in this regard than what we in the rest of the world think. I would certainly never advocate accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, and the Biden administration has been quite clear that they don't either. The implications of that are larger than the Korean peninsula. If North Korea were to essentially convince the world that it would never give up its nuclear weapons, fairly soon other countries will begin making decisions on their own security in relation to North Korea that could also involve the development of nuclear weapons. There are several countries in East Asia that could over a short period of time develop nuclear weapons. 

So, I think it's incumbent upon us to retain our determination and clarity about the need to do away with these nuclear weapons. 

That's not to say there aren’t other things we can do. If the Kim regime truly wanted to make the transition to a different relationship with the rest of the world, there are ways to address concerns about security that don't require nuclear weapons. The premise of a country needing nuclear weapons as a deterrent is that they are at risk of being invaded. I just find that to be an absurd proposition. There's no intention in South Korea and certainly no intention in the United States to act militarily against North Korea, so the whole premise frankly is absurd. 

I actually don't think security is the driver of the North Korean nuclear weapons program. It’s national mobilization around the ideology of the regime. Also, I think the North Koreans know well, it's an attention getter. They used their weapons of mass destruction program to attract concessions from the outside world in the past. What we tried to do is show them is there is a better way through diplomacy. 

ACT: Should the goals set out by Kim and Trump in their 2018 Singapore summit joint statement of working toward a "lasting and stable" peace regime and "complete denuclearization on the Korean peninsula" remain U.S. policy objectives? 

Biegun: Absolutely, it should remain the policy objective. I would be surprised if you would find anybody who would suggest otherwise, even among the more hard-line voices on North Korea policy. The challenge has never been what our goal is. The challenge has been how to get there. 

The Singapore joint statement offers a high-level agreement on where we're going. What we tried to do over the two and a half years that I was leading the efforts on behalf of the secretary of state and the president is translate those commitments into more detailed road maps that over time would get us to an agreed end state—normalization of relations, a permanent peace treaty on the Korean peninsula, the complete elimination of weapons of mass destruction on the Korean peninsula, even in later stages economic cooperation–and all this affected and tempered by broader societal contact, people-to-people exchanges, inter-Korean cooperation, and so on. 

Trump had a sweeping vision for how to get there, and he was prepared to move as quickly as the North Koreans were prepared to move. But at the end of the day, the North Koreans get a vote. They were really stuck in an old form of thinking. They wanted to bicker and minimize their commitments and give up as little as possible and gain unilateral concessions. That wasn't going to happen. 

The failure to reach an agreement in Hanoi underlined for them that this wasn't going to be a one-sided diplomacy. Had they moved, had they engaged, had they been willing to see where this can go, I think they could have changed history on the Korean peninsula, but I don't think they'd made a decision they wanted to do that. I don't know when we'll be able to queue up that alignment of opportunities again. I hope the Biden administration and their team are able to do so, but the short of it is, the North Koreans missed an opportunity. 

ACT: Why do you think that was such a special moment? 

Biegun: The North Koreans have long said in engagements with my predecessors on these issues that if the two leaders could agree, then anything was possible. It was almost something of a mantra from North Korean representatives over the years, and President Trump, in his own unconventional and often controversial way, put that to the test. The president had a lot of confidence in his own abilities. He was not constrained by critics over the conventions of the past. So, he proposed a summit in Singapore to sit down with Kim and basically say, hey, you know, this war ended 65 years ago, let's find a way to put it behind us.

For all the controversy and debate that his foreign policies generated, I can say as a negotiator that it was incredibly empowering to be able to test a proposition like that. For many of the president's critics, their concern was that somehow he was going to give away the store, that he was going to accept the one-sided deal. I think what the summit in Hanoi showed was that it was going to take two to tango. 

We had high hopes going into the summit. I and our negotiating team were there a week before the summit. We'd been to Pyongyang a few weeks before that, and we met in Washington a few weeks before that. We had laid out to each other in detail what our views were, what our objectives were. They didn't align entirely, but each side knew what the other side was looking for out of this. When we got to Hanoi, our North Korean counterparts had absolutely no authority to discuss denuclearization issues, which is just absurd. It was one of the core points of agreement between the two leaders in Singapore.

Ahead of the United States-North Korean summit in Hanoi that would ultimately collapse, Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief (L); Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, held planning talks in Washington in January 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)ACT: Do you still think a negotiated settlement with North Korea is possible? 

Biegun: My belief in that is unshaken. 

ACT: One apparent area of tension within the Trump administration was the pace and sequencing of denuclearization by North Korea, with some U.S. officials advocating a complete denuclearization within a very short time frame. 

Biegun: Without a doubt, there were differing views among the staff in the administration. But elections are for presidents, not for the staff. The president's view was that he was prepared to reach an agreement provided that it successfully denuclearized North Korea. I think the speed with which that happened, were we to have gotten that agreement with the North Koreans, was negotiable. 

Our hope was to move as quickly as possible, and we wanted to tie the benefits for North Korea to the speed with which North Korea wanted the lifting of sanctions. They controlled the tempo of that. The faster they met our expectations on denuclearization, the faster the sanctions went away. It was a fairly simple formula. 

But we were also looking at denuclearization as just one line of effort across multiple lines of effort, including transforming relations on the Korean peninsula, economic collaboration, and potential diplomatic representation in each other's capitals. We saw that in parallel with creating a more secure Korean peninsula, with confidence-building measures and transparency through military exchanges, ultimately through the negotiation of a permanent treaty to end the Korean War.

Of course, denuclearization was going to be the toughest. The other thing that was non-negotiable from our point of view was that, regardless of the timing, two things had to happen. To begin, the North Koreans had to freeze everything. We weren't going to take everything out on day one, but they could stop. They could turn off the centrifuges. They could turn off the nuclear reactors. They could stop the production of weapons of mass destruction. The other non-negotiable was that the endpoint had to be complete denuclearization. The rest of it in between, plenty of room to negotiate how that happens. 

ACT: Could that Trump-Kim summit-level approach have been adjusted in some way that would have made it more successful?

Biegun: What would have made it more successful is if the North Koreans engaged in meaningful, working-level negotiations in advance of the summits in order to produce more substantive agreements for our leaders. I have very good reason to believe that the North Koreans felt like they got exactly what they wanted, which was profile and prestige, without having made any commitments that were actionable. I think that may have lulled them into a mistaken view that that's all this was about, and in coming to Hanoi, that they could similarly do so. What they didn't realize was we were getting into a deeper level of discussion at that point. 

Had the North Koreans been willing to discuss denuclearization with our negotiating team, had they brought appropriate experts to those discussions—we never saw a uniform or a scientist at these meetings. Our delegation was comprised of scientists from the Department of Energy, missile experts from the intelligence community. We had international law and sanctions experts. We had an interagency delegation that we brought to Pyongyang and Hanoi. The North Koreans simply failed to match the ambition.

The other thing I'd say about the president's diplomacy is that I saw absolutely no downside in it and, in some ways, it may even have created challenges for the North Koreans because their regime is being judged by itself and by its own people as to what they're able to achieve. If North Korea were to continue to seek that kind of engagement without delivering on the commitments that it makes or the commitments that it's expected to make, I think that it only worsens global opinion toward the North Korean regime. 

One of the things that was always very effective for us is that we worked with partners and allies and even countries with whom we had more challenging relationships, like China and Russia. We were always willing to meet. We weren't putting any price on the North Koreans sitting down across the table. 

ACT: You said the North Korean negotiating team wasn't empowered to discuss steps toward denuclearization in meetings with your team ahead of the Hanoi summit. Did that inhibit progress? 

Biegun: Of course it did, because in the lead-up to the summit in Hanoi, the two teams spent nearly a week together trying to hammer out the basis for the two leaders to reach an agreement, a much more detailed set of documents than my predecessors had been able to obtain at the Singapore summit. To their credit, the North Koreans brought some creative ideas of their own on how we could improve people-to-people cooperation and transform relations on the Korean peninsula, but the key driver of the Singapore summit was denuclearization. Literally, the offer from North Korea was a “big present.” The negotiators said when Kim would arrive in Hanoi, he would have a big present for Trump, but we had to agree at the front to lift all the sanctions. I'm a practical person; tell me what your opening gambit is, tell me what your bottom line is, but don't tell me you're bringing me a big present. 

ACT: They told you that without defining what the big present would be? 

Biegun: Without any definition of what it would be. 

The North Korean delegation came with ideas on everything but denuclearization. I think the play was that they thought that the president was desperate for a deal and they were going to save that for the leader-level meeting. Lo and behold, that proved to be a very mistaken strategy. Anyone who encouraged them to pursue that policy, whether it was internally or external voices, perhaps even in South Korea, it was a huge mistake. 

But the president's meetings with Chairman Kim, even though the gap was too large for us to reach an agreement in Hanoi, were cordial and friendly. The president's last words to Kim in Hanoi were, “Let's keep at it, let's get something.” Another summit was not going to happen without substantial engagement by the North Koreans at the working level. Unfortunately, after Hanoi and then COVID in 2020 made it all but impossible, the level of engagement diminished significantly. 

ACT: Why were there conflicting reports about what was put on the table in Hanoi? North Korean officials denied they offered partial denuclearization for a full lifting of sanctions. Instead, they said, Pyongyang requested a partial removal of UN sanctions in exchange for a permanent halt of nuclear and ballistic missile testing and the full verifiable dismantlement of facilities at Yongbyon. 

Biegun: Yongbyon is only a portion of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The North Korean rebuttal, which was delivered after the summit by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Minister Choe Son Hui, was that they'd only asked for a partial lifting of sanctions. But we understood the value and the impact of every sanction that was in place, and what the North Koreans were asking for was a complete lifting of UN Security Council sanctions. In effect, the only remaining strictures on trade would be actively doing business with the weapons of mass destruction facilities and enterprises themselves. So in terms of what the North Koreans offered, any knowledgeable expert would recognize it was a partial denuclearization for a full lifting of sanctions, and there were no subsequent commitments. It would in effect accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. That was implicitly what was in that offer. 

ACT: Some observers argue the lack of progress on denuclearization was due to the failure of the two sides to maintain a regular dialogue between high-level meetings. Do you agree? 

Biegun: This takes us back to where we started and why I am so emphatic that establishing a reliable channel of communication is an essential antecedent to making progress. You can't have these episodic engagements. The North Koreans, as my predecessors can attest, use even the willingness to answer the phone or not answer the phone as a negotiating tactic and then oftentimes seek to extract a concession to answer the phone. There is a deeply ingrained tactic on the part of North Koreans that to show up for a meeting requires a concession. 

During the two and a half years that I carried the North Korea portfolio, I met eight times with the North Koreans, and that wasn't enough. It was a lot. It was more than I think most people recognized, and not all the meetings were highly publicized, but it wasn't enough. We need that sustained engagement. I think the United States, whether under Trump or Biden or quite frankly any other president, would be committed to a process like that. But the North Koreans get a vote. 

ACT: North Korea has become highly adept at sidestepping U.S. and UN sanctions and has been unwilling to make concessions in response to those sanctions. No doubt, some partners, namely China, could do more to enforce international sanctions now in place. Have we effectively reached the limits of using sanctions to coerce better behavior on nuclear matters from North Korea? 

Biegun: Sanctions rarely if ever produce, in and of themselves, a policy shift. The sanctions are a necessary component of diplomacy that affects the choices or the timetable that the other party may have in terms of whatever it is you're seeking to address. So, sanctions are a tool, not the policy itself. 

No amount of sanctions evasion is able to overcome the severe downward turn of the North Korean economy because the sanctions are draconian, but if you wanted to make them more severe, that decision really lies in Beijing. I'm not sure at this point that more could be accomplished by more sanctions. I think it's kind of a reflexive statement that policymakers make when put on the spot. The key here is to find a way to appropriately use the pressure of sanctions to produce a better outcome in diplomacy and to get on with what needs to be done on the Korean peninsula to end this ridiculous 65 years of hostility, long after a war between two systems that no longer even exist today, at one of their first showdowns after World War II.

ACT: The latest U.S. intelligence report foresees China doubling its nuclear stockpile over the next decade. Do you think that is accurate? 

Biegun: I don't think we've spent sufficient time trying to understand what's happening in the strategic weapons program with China, and I think policymakers, arms control advocates, experts, scientists, and specialists need to devote substantially more time than we have. I think we've been neglectful in understanding this, and it is serious, and it is growing, and this is a substantial factor for U.S. national security. Quite honestly, it's a substantial factor for Russia's national security and for the world as well. China is the only country that's moving against the tide of the basic commitments made in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that nuclear-weapon states would be making efforts to reduce their nuclear weapons. 

I expect that the purpose is the same as it's always been, to have a convincing deterrent in the case of conflict. But even if one accepts—and China is an accepted nuclear-weapon state—that they are going to have nuclear weapons, we need to devote a lot more effort to understanding their doctrine, to building new mechanisms for strategic stability between the United States and China. Basically, we have to kind of crack open some old playbooks and go back and think about how we can create a world that can remain free of the use of nuclear weapons at the same time that we're sustaining peace and security. 

ACT: Even if the Chinese doubled their arsenal, they still wouldn't approach what the United States and Russia have. Yes, China is building up its stockpile but so are other countries, such as India and Pakistan. Don't we need to keep that in perspective?

Biegun: There are ample reasons to be worried about strategic stability, not only in the U.S.-Russian context, but the U.S.-Chinese context and in the context of other states. We've spent a long time talking about North Korea. Our commitment and China's commitment in the NPT is to commit to making efforts to reduce those nuclear weapons, not to increase them. It's not about what they owe us. It's about what their treaty commitments are internationally. This year, we have an NPT review conference where we hope China answers how its nuclear ambitions square with its commitments made in the NPT. From the U.S. and Russian points of view, I think certainly we should continue efforts to create a sound, stable, strategic formula that reduces nuclear weapons while maintaining the effectiveness of deterrents. 

Ultimately, the ideal that so many advocate—the complete elimination of nuclear weapons—is well beyond our reach, but that doesn't mean we need more. I've personally never been an advocate of more. I've been an advocate for sound, treaty-based mechanisms that reduce weapons while sustaining stability. If we could do that with the Chinese, all the better, but I can tell you that there's nothing stabilizing for China or for the rest of the world that will come from a rapid expansion of their nuclear arsenal. 

As the Biden administration prepares to engage with North Korea, Biegun says establishing a reliable channel of communication with Pyongyang is key to making progress.

Missile Proliferation Poses Global Risk

June 2021
By Kelsey Davenport and Sang-Min Kim 

Even as world leaders raise alarms about accelerating missile proliferation, the primary multilateral initiative designed to check this trend is struggling to keep pace with the changing technologies that are making these weapons more accessible and more attractive. 

South Korea's Hyunmu-2 ballistic missile is fired during an exercise aimed to counter North Korea's nuclear test on September 4, 2017 in East Coast, South Korea. (Photo: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images.)In an April 19 statement, the nonproliferation directors for the Group of Seven (G7) countries expressed grave concern over the “accelerating proliferation of ballistic and other missile technologies, including at the hands of non-state actors.” The spread of these systems is a “threat to regional and global security,” the statement said. 

It exhorted all states to “unilaterally adhere” to the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary export control regime designed to prevent the spread of missiles and materials used for missiles that could deliver weapons of mass destruction (see page 29). 

The MTCR is credited with slowing advances in a number of programs for ballistic missiles in the years after it was created, including a joint development project among Argentina, Egypt, and Iraq, as well as missile programs in Brazil and South Africa. The regime has also prompted member states to put in place export controls on missiles and related technology. But the initiative’s consensus-based decision-making has made it difficult to admit new members and update the regime’s guidelines to adapt to new technologies. 

Moreover, new acquisitions of missiles and related materials by countries such as China, India, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States, as well as nonstate actors such as Hamas and the Houthis, pose serious challenges. 

MTCR chair Thomas Hajnoczi of Austria told Arms Control Today in a May 17 email that he sees “missile-based power projection on the rise.” An increasing number of states and nonstate actors are producing missiles or missile components, making the MTCR “more relevant than ever,” he wrote.

Hajnoczi, speaking in his personal capacity, said the MTCR needs to make a concerted effort to address these developments in order to be effective. The “proliferation of technology becomes increasingly challenging to control—both in terms of concrete goods and components, as well as knowledge knowingly or unwittingly being transferred,” he said. 

Timothy Wright, a research analyst and program administrator at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Arms Control Today in a May 17 email that the MTCR “remains a useful tool for countering missile proliferation” but the “regime is creaking in places” and reforms will be necessary to sustain and strengthen it. 

Wright said that “more states than ever possess ballistic and cruise missiles” and many are diversifying and improving their conventional missile capabilities but that it is debatable whether missile proliferation is accelerating. He noted, for example, that new types of land-attack cruise missiles were introduced at the same rate from 2000 to 2010 as from 2010 to 2020. 

As states develop new missile systems, they contribute to a risk of “proliferation through imitation,” as other states seek to acquire similar capabilities, Wright said. This trend is particularly evident among states pursuing new hypersonic glide vehicles, he added. 

The MTCR at a Glance

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a voluntary export control initiative established in 1987 to limit the proliferation of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload over a distance of more than 300 kilometers. Since then, the MTCR has expanded its mandate to cover missile systems and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of delivering biological and chemical weapons. 

The MTCR divides missile-related materials and technologies into two categories. Category I items include complete missiles, rockets, UAVs, major components of these systems, and production facilities. According to the regime guidelines, “[T]here will be a strong presumption to deny” Category I transfers. 

Category II items include specialized materials and technologies relevant to building missiles or UAVs, such as propellants. Export of these items should be considered on a case-by-case basis, given the applicability of these materials and technologies for civil uses, such as space exploration. Factors that states should take into account prior to exporting Category II items include the credibility of the stated purpose of the purchase and their potential contribution to nuclear-capable delivery systems. 

Prior to exporting any item listed in either category, MTCR members are supposed to obtain assurances that the materials in question will not be reexported and that the recipient will only use the materials for the original purpose. 

Because the MTCR is voluntary, there are no penalties for transferring controlled items outside of the approved guidelines. The United States, for instance, has transferred Category I systems to allies and partners, citing security needs. 

Initially comprising seven states, the MTCR has expanded to include 35 members.

Hajnoczi noted that not all hypersonic technology is covered by the MTCR and that could be an area for further discussion by member states. One of Austria’s priorities this year, he said, is “keeping pace with technological progress” to ensure the regime remains effective. He stressed the G7 commitment in the statement to “review the material and technology that we control . . . supporting work to update multilateral export control regime lists” and sharing expertise to address new technologies. 

Hajnoczi also cited the “unprecedented surge in interest and activity in space” that makes satellite technology more accessible. This poses a challenge because of the “substantial technological overlap between the technology used to transport satellites into space and that used to deliver weapons of mass destruction,” he said. The MTCR should work with other relevant international organizations to address this development, he said. 

The most recent annual report of the U.S. National Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee, published in January, concluded that countries “view ballistic and cruise missile systems as cost-effective weapons and symbols of national power.” Advances in missile technology also drive state interest in these systems, the report determined.

Wright also cited technical developments as a factor increasing state interest in missile systems. Developments in guidance and propulsion technologies have made cruise and ballistic missiles “more accessible and affordable” and “increased the utility of missile systems as long-range precision strike weapons and as a means of regional deterrence,” he said.

Perceived regional threats appear to be spurring missile proliferation in Asia. Taiwan, which is not a member of the MTCR, is modernizing and diversifying its missile arsenal in order to bolster its deterrence posture against China. Although Taiwan’s missile force historically contained defensive anti-ship cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles, the island has begun developing and producing longer-range missile systems. 

In January, Taiwan deployed a new cruise missile with a range of 1,200 kilometers. In addition, as Li Shih-Chiang, director of the Department of Strategic Planning in the defense ministry, stated on April 19, the U.S. AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, which has a range of more than 370 kilometers, remains on “Taiwan’s arms wish list.”

MTCR members Australia and South Korea also have been increasingly investing in their missile forces. Although MTCR members do not commit to forgo missiles and UAVs capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, their acquisition and development of these systems, sometimes with the assistance of other MTCR members, contributes to missile race dynamics. 

When South Korea joined the regime in 2001, it negotiated a new bilateral missile agreement with the United States that limited the country’s missiles to systems below the MTCR threshold, a modest extension to the range restrictions imposed by the original 1979 deal. In a series of agreements beginning in 2012, South Korea negotiated less stringent limitations on the payload and range of its missiles. (See ACT, June 2020.) Most recently, President Moon Jae-in announced May 21, after meeting with President Joe Biden, that the United States agreed to terminate the remaining restrictions. 

Australia, whose relationship with China deteriorated in 2020, announced on May 11 that its next fiscal year plan includes $212 billion over the next decade for upgrading defense capabilities, including building its own guided missiles with U.S. help.

Perceived changes in the strategic and security environment have impacted Australia’s decisions. In its 2020 Defence Strategic Update, the Australian Department of Defence reported new investments in an “enhanced integrated air and missile defence system and very high-speed and ballistic missile defence capabilities for deployed forces.” It tied the decision to the destabilizing effects of regional military modernizations, such as North Korea’s missile programs.

Nonstate actors are also pursuing missile systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. Houthi attacks using ballistic missiles on Saudi Arabia demonstrate the group’s ability “to design and manufacture missiles and UAVs domestically and their professional technical expertise,” according to the January 2021 report by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen. 

The United Nations also found evidence of Iran providing missile systems to the Houthis, which highlights another proliferation challenge, namely that as states develop new capabilities, they could choose to sell their systems, driving further proliferation. 

The G7 call for all states to adhere to the MTCR could be useful in encouraging states to adopt more comprehensive and effective export control guidelines to prevent the transfer of dual-use materials and technologies. 

Hajnoczi said that “outreach to relevant countries” is important as the MTCR and Austria seek to expand the regime beyond the current membership. The pandemic halted outreach, but he hopes to resume those efforts later this summer. 

In the past, MTCR chairs have conducted outreach visits to nonmember states to provide updates on MTCR guidelines and learn about states’ export control legislation. Recent outreach visits in 2020 and 2018 included Israel, Jordan, and Pakistan.

Austria is committed to making more information about MTCR activities available to the public when appropriate, Hajnoczi said, noting that “increasing understanding of the objectives and work of the MTCR” could be beneficial to the regime. 

Wright also expressed support for expanding membership, particularly in regions where missile production and proliferation are prevalent. Some of the more troubling missile proliferation developments are taking place in the Middle East and Asia, where few states have joined the MTCR.

Even as missile proliferation accelerates, the primary initiative designed to check this trend is struggling to stay relevant and effective.

U.S. Plutonium Pit Costs Rise

June 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Energy Department’s cost to build the infrastructure to produce new plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear warheads could be as high as $18 billion, according to a department estimate and yet-to-be-released internal estimates detailed to Arms Control Today by a congressional source. 

A technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico manipulates plutonium as part of the U.S. Stockpile Stewardship Program in 2005. Current plans call for expanding the production of plutonium pits at both Los Alamos and at the Savannah RIver Site in South Carolina. (Photo: U.S. Energy Department)The updated price tag is nearly two and half times larger than earlier projections and is likely to raise fresh doubts about the affordability of the department’s aggressive plans to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure. 

The updated estimates are not reflected in the budget plan for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that the Trump administration bequeathed to the Biden administration. That means future NNSA weapons program budget requests will require significant increases beyond current plans just to accommodate the growth in the projected cost of pit production. 

“The data shows that the last Administration sold a plan that is not executable and has left it to the Biden Administration to sort out,” the congressional source told Arms Control Today.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review proposed to increase the rate of production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year at two sites. Congress subsequently mandated production to that level in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. (See ACT, June 2018.)

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is slated to produce at least 30 pits per year by 2026 while the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is pegged to produce at least 50 pits annually by 2030. 

The Energy Department’s semiautonomous NNSA announced on April 28 the approval of the Critical Decision 1 (CD-1) milestone for the Los Alamos Plutonium Pit Production Project.

“CD-1 approval marks the completion of the project definition phase and the conceptual design,” an NNSA press release stated. The CD-1 cost estimate for the Los Alamos pit facility is $2.7-3.9 billion, with an overall project completion date range of 2027-2028, it said.

That is an increase from a preliminary estimate of $1.5-3.0 billion completed in 2015 for the 30-pit capability. The NNSA press release did not specify how the agency plans to achieve the production of at least 30 pits per year at Los Alamos. 

According to the congressional source, the projected CD-1 cost to complete the pit production facility at Savannah River, which was presented to the Energy Department for a decision and has yet to be released, is $8-14 billion. In 2018, the agency had estimated that the facility would cost $1.8-4.6 billion to complete. 

The Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request published May 28 said: “The scope, cost and schedule estimates developed for the CD-1 approval package include an estimated high end of the cost range at $11.1B [billion].” It is not clear how the agency settled on this figure.

The updated cost estimate also raises questions about whether the Savannah River site can realistically produce at least 50 pits annually by 2030. Jill Hruby, President Biden’s nominee to be administrator of the NNSA told the Senate Armed Services Committee at her May 27 confirmation hearing that the 50-pit goal “is likely to, now, be somewhere between 2030 and 2035.” The budget request said that achieving that goal by 2030 “is not likely.”

The agency will set the official cost and schedule baseline for the Los Alamos and Savannah River facilities when their design is at least 90 percent complete. The Los Alamos facility is slated to reach this point in 2023. The agency has not suggested a target for the Savannah River facility. 

The Pentagon and the NNSA have offered several justifications for seeking a production capability of at least 80 pits per year by 2030. One is the need to build enough new W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads to arm the Air Force’s new ICBM, known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent system. The new missile system is slated to be fielded between 2028 and 2036. 

Other justifications include enhancing the safety and security of nuclear warheads and hedging against uncertainty about the aging plutonium in the pits. The new production targets would allow the NNSA to replace all the estimated 3,800 operational warheads in the U.S. stockpile by the end of the century. 

But skeptics have raised concerns about the executability of and the need for the ambitious production plan. 

An independent March 2019 study by the Institute for Defense Analyses concluded that there is “no historical precedent” for the agency’s plan to go from the current annual production level of zero to 80 pits by 2030. “No available option can be expected to provide 80 pits per year by 2030,” the report said.

In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report published last September that the NNSA “has been unable to plan for and complete major construction projects on time” and, over the past two decades, Los Alamos “has twice had to suspend laboratory-wide operations after the discovery of significant safety issues.”

“The latest cost estimates suggest [the] NNSA has done little to improve its management of major programs,” Sharon Weiner, a former program examiner with the National Security Division of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a May 19 email. 

“Given that [the] NNSA is unlikely to meet pit production goals with either facility, now is the time to reconsider pit production plans rather than commit to two budget fiascos,” she wrote.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will stick to the plan to produce 80 pits per year at two sites despite the growing price tag. 

Asked at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on May 12 if she supports the NNSA’s current approach, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm replied, “I do.” 

The rising cost of the plutonium mission comes on the heels of large spending increases on nuclear weapons programs at the NNSA over the past four years. (See ACT, March 2021.)

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 cost to build the infrastructure to produce plutonium cores for U.S. nuclear warheads could be as much as $18 billion, more than twice earlier projections.

Biden Open to Talks With North Korea

June 2021
By Sang-Min Kim

U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to engage North Korea diplomatically on pragmatic steps to end the nuclear threat and reinforced that commitment by appointing veteran U.S. diplomat Sung Kim to lead the effort.

Career diplomat Sung Kim, currently the ambassador to Indonesia, will also serve as the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, President Biden announced on Friday, May 28. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)Hosting South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House on May 21, Biden told a news conference that the United States and South Korea “share a willingness to engage diplomatically with [North Korea] to take pragmatic steps that will reduce tensions as we move toward our ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Moon emphasized that pursuing North Korea’s denuclearization is the “most urgent common task” for the United States and South Korea to undertake. But in a hint of past difficulties in advancing that goal, Biden stressed that “we’re under no illusions how difficult this is.” 

North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and its stockpile of nuclear fuel has risen steadily at least since the Bush administration and roughly doubled in the past four years. It is estimated to have around 45 nuclear weapons, according to former Los Alamos weapons laboratory director Siegfried Hecker, who visited North Korea seven times between 2004 and 2010.

Kim, the new U.S. special envoy for North Korea, has been ambassador to Indonesia. Previously, he was ambassador to South Korea and also served as Obama’s special envoy to the six-party talks with North Korea. Moon praised the appointment as reflecting “the commitment of the U.S. for exploring diplomacy and its readiness for dialogue with North Korea.”

The summit took place several weeks after the Biden administration completed a review of North Korea policy. Few details have been made public.

Moon said the United States coordinated closely with his government and the resulting policy is “a very calibrated, practical, gradual, step-by-step manner, and very flexible” with the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as the ultimate objective.

The policy builds on the 2018 Singapore joint statement, which was issued after a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un and calls for the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the establishment of a stable peace there.

Given that past administrations were unable to achieve denuclearization in a single, comprehensive deal, the policy moves away from a grand bargain, which North Korea rejected at the 2019 Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, and from the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach that refused serious diplomatic engagement until North Korea changed its nuclear provocations and behavior.

After reportedly rejecting earlier Biden administration efforts to engage, Pyongyang has “well received” the U.S. offer to explain the outcome of the policy review, according to Yonhap News Agency. 

Kurt Campbell, the White House policy coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, stated in a Yonhap News Agency interview on May 18 that UN sanctions on North Korea will remain and continue to be enforced. China and Russia have been pushing for sanctions relief for North Korea.

The Washington Post reported on April 30 that one U.S. official stated that the United States is prepared to offer relief for specific actions.

Zhang Jun, China’s UN ambassador, said on May 3 that he hopes the United States gives more importance to diplomacy and dialogue than pressure in its new North Korea policy.

Beijing supports a dual-track approach of pursuing denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Korean peninsula.

The United States conducted the policy review in close consultation with allies Japan and South Korea, but has also been in touch with other states in the region, such as Russia, about it.

The president pledged a new diplomatic efforts to try to end the North Korean nuclear threat and named diplomat Sung Kim to lead the effort.

U.S. Lifts Missile Limits on South Korea

June 2021
By Sang-Min Kim

Bilateral guidelines that have long restricted development of South Korea’s ballistic missile program have been terminated, according to an agreement announced by President Moon Jae-in at his summit with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on May 21.

Addressing a White House news conference on May 21, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) and U.S. President Joe Biden promised to work together to solve the North Korean nuclear threat, but Biden stressed, "we're under no illusions how difficult this is." (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)The move, long sought by Seoul, will affect the regional security dynamic in Asia by expanding South Korea’s missile and space force capabilities. It is also expected to further contribute to a rebalancing of the military relationship between the two long-time allies.

The still-classified guidelines, signed by the two countries in 1979 and revised four times, placed varying limits primarily on the range and maximum payload that South Korea could incorporate in its ballistic missile designs. 

Washington originally provided technological support for Seoul’s missile systems in return for the restrictions because it wanted to stymie Seoul’s desire to build its own nuclear force. Prior to the May 21 revisions, South Korea’s missile forces could not develop or possess ballistic missiles with a maximum range of greater than 800 kilometers. 

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun tweeted on May 21 that terminating the guidelines meant his country would have “secure complete missile sovereignty [for the first time] in 42 years.”

South Korea and the United States have been working toward rebalancing their military dynamic. In March, the two countries signed the Special Measures Agreement, increasing Seoul’s financial contribution to the alliance. At a joint press conference with Biden, Moon said the missile agreement was a “symbolic and practical” sign of the “robustness of our alliance.” 

As further evidence of that commitment, Biden announced that the United States would provide enough COVID-19 vaccines for the 550,000 South Korean military personnel who work closely with the 35,000 U.S. forces based in the country. Although Seoul recently signed a deal with Moderna for approximately 20 million doses, with some arriving before June, the government has only vaccinated around 5 percent of the population, according to Reuters. 

In their formal joint statement, the two leaders affirmed their commitment to a combined defense posture under the U.S.-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty and to the U.S. readiness to defend South Korea with its full range of capabilities. They also committed to “maintaining an inclusive, free, and open” Indo-Pacific region involving both the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea; preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait; and “maintaining joint military readiness.” 

At a May 24 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian expressed Beijing’s concerns about the references in the Biden-Moon joint statement regarding Taiwan. 

Biden and Moon established a comprehensive KORUS Global Vaccine Partnership that strengthens collaboration in international vaccine efforts, promised to forge “new ties on climate, global health, emerging technologies, including 5G and 6G technology and semi-conductors, supply chain resilience, migration and development, and in our people-to-people relationship.” Plans also include bolstering their trilateral alliance with Japan and bilateral partnerships in space, science, and nuclear projects, according to the joint statement.

The summit featured pledges from major South Korean companies such as Samsung, Hyundai, and LG to invest more than $25 billion in the United States to help secure supply chains on semiconductors and other items.

From the beginning, Biden has made clear that he views strengthening security in East Asia and rejuvenating regional alliances as a priority. His first two overseas visitors at the White House were Moon and, before that, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.


 

Bilateral guidelines that have restricted development of South Korea’s ballistic missile program have been ended by agreement between President Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Projected Cost of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Rises

June 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States will spend a total of $634 billion over the next 10 years to sustain and modernize its nuclear arsenal, according to the latest projection by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The estimate is 28 percent higher than the previous 10-year projection released in 2019 and could exacerbate concerns about the necessity and the sustainability of the current nuclear modernization effort amid what experts predict will likely be a flat defense budget in the coming years.

The CBO report, published May 24, includes the projected costs to sustain and modernize U.S. delivery vehicles, warheads, and their associated infrastructure across a range of programs that are managed by the Defense Department and the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The report estimates that the $634 billion in planned spending in fiscal years 2021–2030 will consume 6.0–8.5 percent of projected total spending on national defense during those years.

The 2019 CBO report had forecast total U.S. spending on nuclear forces at $494 billion through 2028 and estimated that the annual cost during those years would be 5–7 percent of the national defense budget. (See ACT, March 2019.) 

Of the $140 billion increase in spending identified in the 2021 report, the CBO attributed 36 percent, or about $50 billion, to an increase in spending on nuclear weapons during the eight years, from 2021 to 2028, that overlap in both estimates.

Another 50 percent or so of the increase results from inflation and from the fact that the 2021 report begins and ends two years later than the previous projection, the CBO calculated. The other 15 percent reflects the estimated cost of growth beyond projected amounts. 

The percentage increase of the nuclear weapons budget administered by the Energy Department is “substantially higher” than that for the Defense Department, the report said, with Energy Department costs “projected to total $229 billion, or 36 percent more than CBO estimated in 2019, whereas [Defense Department] costs are projected to total $406 billion, or 25 percent more than CBO estimated in 2019.” 

Congress appropriated $15.4 billion for NNSA nuclear weapons activities in fiscal year 2021, a nearly 25 percent increase above the previous year’s appropriation. (See ACT, March 2021.) Modernization costs for nuclear command, control, communications, and early-warning systems increased by $17 billion, to $94 billion, over 10 years in the latest CBO report.

Within the triad of nuclear delivery systems, projected spending on the U.S. fleet of ballistic missile submarines increased significantly, with the CBO putting the total price tag at $145 billion over 10 years, which is a $38 billion increase from the previous CBO estimate. The CBO attributed some of the increase to higher operating costs for the current fleet and plans to operate some of the submarines longer than initially planned. 

The cost of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles is projected to grow to $82 billion over 10 years, $21 billion more than the 2019 projection. The CBO said that was due primarily to the difference in time periods covered by the reports. 

In addition, the CBO report estimates that the United States will spend $53 billion over the next 10 years on strategic bombers. The CBO notes that the estimate only covers a quarter of the costs of the B-52 bomber and the new B-21 bomber because the rest of the costs are assigned to the bombers’ conventional, not nuclear, mission. If the full cost of B-52 and B-21 bombers were included, the total cost of nuclear forces would be $711 billion, including cost growth. 

CBO projections are based on the plans reflected in the fiscal year 2021 budget requests that the Defense and Energy departments under the Trump administration submitted in February 2020, “provided those plans did not change or experience any cost growth or schedule delays.” The CBO also assumed that the Pentagon would move forward with directives listed in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, such as the fielding of a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), although this program is believed to be under review by the Biden administration. (See ACT, April 2021.) 

The CBO report said that the estimate of the costs of the SLCM and its warhead of about $10 billion from 2021 to 2030 “is highly uncertain; in fact, it is still not clear whether the program will be pursued at all and, if so, what the design and development schedule will be.”

The United States will spend $634 billion over the next 10 years to sustain and modernize its nuclear arsenal, up 28 percent over the last estimate, the Congressional Budget Office says.

States Finally Settle on Next Leader for CTBTO

June 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

After an unusually contentious process that lasted for months, representatives from the member states of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) finally agreed to appoint Robert Floyd of Australia to serve as its executive secretary.

After a contentious months-long contest, Robert Floyd, who heads Australia's safeguards and nonproliferation office, will succeed Lassina Zerbo, a geophysicist originally from Burkino Faso, as executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission (CTBTO). (Government of Australia)Floyd, who is currently the director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office, said in an April 12 statement on Twitter in which he outlined his candidacy that he was “hopeful for new opportunities for the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)] in 2021, a year marking the 25th anniversary of the treaty’s opening for signature.”

“I am looking forward to opportunities such as the upcoming NPT Review Conference to stress the importance of the CTBT for international peace and security and to move us closer to the goal of entry into force,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of engaging all member states and putting the organization “on firm financial footing in difficult economic times.”

Floyd will become the fourth executive secretary of the organization, succeeding Lassina Zerbo, who was seeking a third term. Zerbo’s second four-year term will expire July 31.

The process for selecting the next executive secretary has been more controversial than in the past, in part because Zerbo was seeking an unprecedented third term. Although there are no rules against that, many states, including the United States, have stressed the general practice of heads of international organizations serving two terms. Some states argued that Zerbo would provide needed continuity through the difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but others disagreed. (See ACT, October 2020.)

Floyd’s appointment was secured when he won the support of 96 states, exactly two-thirds of the states voting, in a fifth round of balloting held on May 20. Through the earlier rounds of voting, which began May 17, Floyd won the support of more than 60 percent of the member states voting, while Zerbo was supported by less than 40 percent.

The organization, with an annual budget in excess of $100 million, is responsible for maintaining and operating the test ban treaty’s global verification regime, including the International Monitoring System (IMS) and International Data Centre (IDC). It is also responsible for developing and demonstrating on-site inspection capabilities in preparation for the treaty’s entry into force, as well as for promoting entry into force of the agreement.

To date, the CTBT has been signed by 185 states and ratified by 170 states, but the treaty has not entered into force due to inaction by eight holdouts, including the United States and China.

Following an inconclusive voting process in December 2020 involving Floyd and Zerbo that left the Australian just one vote short of securing two-thirds approval (see ACT, January/February 2021), the CTBTO chair for 2020, Faouzia Mebarki of Algeria, set a Feb. 5 deadline for new nominations. 

On Jan. 8, Australia resubmitted Floyd’s nomination. Despite lagging far behind Floyd in the vote totals, Zerbo on Feb. 2 confirmed for a second time his “ability and commitment to continue working and contributing as executive secretary.” Through early 2021, the new CTBTO chair, Ivo Šrámek of the Czech Republic, engaged in intensive informal consultations aimed at reaching consensus on the selection process. 

The CTBTO decided by consensus on March 26 that all member states that had taken part in the December 2020 voting, as well as new CTBT signatories and states that had paid their assessed financial dues, would be invited to cast votes. The member states also authorized Šrámek to facilitate a process leading to a first round of balloting no later than May 17.

Zerbo, a geophysicist originally from Burkina Faso, has made a significant impact on the CTBTO. He first joined the organization in 2004 to head the IDC and was chosen to be executive secretary in 2013. Since then, he has led work to complete the monitoring and verification system by bringing key monitoring stations in China online and strengthening the connections between the CTBTO and the global scientific community. 

Zerbo also improved access to IMS-generated data on seismic events for member states, thus providing real time data for tsunami early warnings, as well as for nuclear detonations. Zerbo and his team provided detailed updates on North Korean nuclear test explosions. He also succeeded in keeping the CTBT in the international nonproliferation conversation despite the slow pace of the treaty’s entry into force.

Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office, was chosen to replace incumbent Lassina Zerbo after a contentious process.

New ICBM Interceptor to Cost $18 Billion

June 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

A new U.S. interceptor intended to counter limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strikes from North Korea or Iran could cost nearly $18 billion over its lifetime, according to the Defense Department’s independent cost assessment office. The new estimate comes amid continued questions about the future of the U.S. homeland missile defense mission and is at least 36 percent more than the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had suggested. 

The price tag for the Next Generation Interceptor, intended to knock down North Korean missiles in space as part of U.S. homeland defense system, is projected to cost at least 36 percent more than earlier projections. It will replace the cancelled Redesigned Kill Vehicle (shown) program. (Photo: Raytheon)The Pentagon said in April that the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office estimates the cost of the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) at $17.7 billion. That figure represents $13.1 billion for up-front costs, including the purchase of 10 developmental interceptors; $2.3 billion for 21 operational interceptors; and $2.3 billion for operations and support costs over the life of the interceptors. 

The average cost to develop and purchase the 31 interceptors amounts to $498 million per interceptor, according to the CAPE office. The cost to purchase the 21 operational interceptors is $111 million per interceptor. 

The Pentagon in March awarded two research and development contracts for the interceptor to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. (See ACT, April 2021.) The CAPE estimate “reflects the system development acquisition plan to carry two NGI contractor teams through Critical Design Review…at which point the [MDA] will down-select to a single vendor to proceed with the remaining development, testing, and production efforts,” Pentagon spokesperson Christopher Sherwood told Inside Defense in an April 27 statement. 

The NGI emerged after the Pentagon in 2019 cancelled the program to design an upgraded kill vehicle, the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), for the already existing interceptors that are part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. (See ACT, October 2019.) The MDA planned to deploy the RKV beginning in 2021 atop 20 new interceptors in Alaska to augment the existing fleet of 44 interceptors there and in California. The RKV was also intended to replace the aging kill vehicles atop the current fleet.

The agency spent a total of $1.2 billion on RKV development at the time the program was cancelled, according to a 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. 

The Defense Department hopes to begin fielding the NGI in fiscal year 2028 in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska. The department is not currently planning to replace the existing 44 interceptors, which have been plagued by development problems and testing failures, with the NGI but rather to supplement them with 20 of the new interceptors to bring the fleet total to 64 interceptors. 

Independent assessments put the cost to purchase the newest versions of the existing ground-based interceptors at $90–100 million per missile. The CAPE estimate of the NGI cost is higher than the MDA estimate of $11.3 billion for the program, the GAO said in an April 28 report.

The high price tag to acquire the NGI has raised concerns from some members of Congress. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), citing the shortcomings of the existing 44 interceptors and current plans to field just 21 NGIs, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 12 that “[i]t’s not at all clear to me that spending billions of dollars on additional interceptors is the right call.” 

The Pentagon is planning to extend the life of the existing ground-based interceptors pending the deployment of the NGI in 2028. MDA Director Adm. Jon Hill said on May 12 that the life extension effort will increase the reliability of the interceptors “to kind of bridge that gap between when we’ll actually deploy the first NGI.”

Meanwhile, the April GAO report highlighted roadblocks to the Pentagon’s plans as of the end of the Trump administration for a new layered homeland missile defense approach that would augment the GMD system with the Aegis system, specifically the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptor, and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which is designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles.

The GAO found that the GMD system’s fire control and engagement planning currently “does not take into account any other interceptor systems” and that managing engagement among multiple interceptor systems requires a “more cohesive integration with overall battle planning” than exists at this time. The agency also found that the existing ground-based interceptor has “hardware constraints that limit communication opportunities with ground systems while in flight.”

The GAO said “more development work is needed for the [Aegis] SM-3 Block IIA to support a layered homeland defense capability” and that this effort “could introduce considerable cost, schedule, and performance uncertainty to a program that has just entered initial production.”

The Pentagon in November 2020 conducted a successful first intercept test of the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM target. (See ACT, December 2020.) “This was not an operational test, however, and it was executed under highly favorable conditions,” the GAO noted.  

Furthermore, the GAO said that “there are a number of significant upgrades and steps to address obsolescence that would be needed to enhance THAAD’s performance and make it capable of performing” as part of the layered homeland defense.

The MDA requested $274 million in fiscal year 2021 to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the THAAD system, to provide an additional layer of defense against limited ICBMs threats. But Congress poured cold water on the proposal and provided $49 million only for limited concept studies, a decrease of $225 million from the budget request. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

 

Amid continued questions about the future of the U.S. homeland defense mission, the cost of a new interceptor to counter North Korean and Iranian missiles could cost 36 percent more than expected.

Global Partnership Flags HEU Stocks

June 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

In a further effort to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the United Kingdom is making it a priority to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) around the world in its new role as chair of a multilateral initiative. 

The G7 foreign ministers meeting in London on May 5 was their first face-to-face talks in more than two years on pressing global threats, including fissile material security. (Photo: Ben Stansall/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)HEU contains at least 20 percent of the fissionable isotope uranium-235. Uranium enriched to this level and greater poses a risk because it can be used for nuclear weapons or nuclear terrorism. Twenty-two countries possess at least one kilogram of HEU. 

Efforts to minimize, secure, and dispose of HEU in civil nuclear programs have slowed since 2016, when U.S. President Barack Obama’s six-year-long initiative of convening annual nuclear security summits ended. The summits focused high-level political attention on the threat of nuclear terrorism and efforts to reduce weapons-usable materials worldwide. 

The UK seeks to “reinvigorate” HEU minimization efforts in 2021, according to an official statement laying out the goals for the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Reducing the production and use of HEU “enjoys broad support but requires more solid political support,” the statement said.

The partnership was created by the Group of Eight, now the Group of Seven (G7), in 2002 to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Initially focused on disposing of weapons of mass destruction and dismantling production facilities for those weapons in the former Soviet Union, the partnership has expanded to 31 member states and implements projects worldwide to reduce the risks of nonstate actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The initiative uses a matchmaking process to pair states looking for assistance in mitigating WMD-related threats with states looking to donate funds or relevant expertise.

The partnership is also one of five international initiatives charged with continuing the work of the nuclear security summits. At the 2016 summit, the 52 participating states agreed that the partnership should provide assistance for the “safe, secure and timely consolidation of nuclear materials inside countries, removal of such material to other countries for disposal…and minimizing HEU” where feasible. The state leading the G7 also chairs the Global Partnership and sets yearly priorities for the initiative. 

The G7 affirmed the UK’s decision to prioritize HEU minimization in an April 19 statement, pledging to “accelerate national and international steps to manage the risks posed” by nuclear and radioactive materials and to encourage states with civil stocks of HEU to “further reduce or eliminate them where economically and technically feasible.”

The UK statement did not contain any details about specific projects or activities for 2021, but said the UK hopes to “secure new or increased financial and non-financial contributions for practical programming initiatives.” 

Nickolas Roth, director of the Stimson Center’s Nuclear Security Program and International Nuclear Security Forum, told Arms Control Today in a May 18 email that although “significant hurdles to further progress” on HEU minimization remain, there are things the partnership can do to advance the effort. 

Roth recommended encouraging states to “support and implement INFCIRC 912,” an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) document that advocates reporting the status of HEU national stockpiles and the reduction or disposal of them to the agency. Roth also said the partnership could facilitate dialogue about the “technical and political hurdles to further progress” on minimization. 

One drawback is that the partnership is not currently working with Russia, which has “more nuclear material in more facilities than any other country,” so other initiatives are needed to engage Russia, he stated. 

There are already two ongoing, multiyear projects that address HEU minimization as part of the partnership’s nuclear security working group, according to an annex released in March 2021 that details the initiative’s activities over the prior year. One is a collaborative project among the United States, Japan, Kazakhstan, and four European countries to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuels that can be used in research reactors to produce medical isotopes. The project also aims to convert reactors using HEU for that medical purpose into using LEU as an alternative. 

Roth said the partnership can advance this effort by “identifying opportunities for international collaboration that can speed up the process for converting research reactors” to run on LEU fuel.

There are 72 research reactors that still use HEU fuel worldwide, according to the IAEA. Seventy-one others have already been converted to use LEU fuel, and 28 were shut down. 

A second multiyear project is a collaboration among the United States, Japan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to dispose of weapons-usable nuclear materials. 

As chair of the multilateral initiative in 2020, the United States focused on enhancing chemical security and building capacity to respond to biological incidents. (See ACT, July/August 2020.) According to the project annex released by the United States in March 2021, the partnership spent $669 million to implement 245 projects in 2020, several of which supported efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Canada, for instance, provided support for South Africa to acquire the necessary laboratory equipment to rapidly process COVID-19 tests and for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to acquire personal protective equipment to help respond to the pandemic in 2020, according to the project annex. 

The UK said the second major priority for the Global Partnership in 2021 will be biosecurity. Specifically, the partnership will look to build on a project proposed by Canada to work with the Africa Centers for Disease Control to mitigate biological threats, according to the UK statement. 

 

As the new chair of a multilateral initiative, the United Kingdom is trying to refocus international attention on minimizing the use of highly enriched uranium.

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