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

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
March 2020

Arms Control Today March 2020

Edition Date: 
Sunday, March 1, 2020
Cover Image: 

U.S. Deploys Low-Yield Nuclear Warhead

March 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Navy has fielded a low-yield nuclear warhead for some of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles for the first time, the Defense Department confirmed in February. The move, first proposed in the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report, “strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon,” said John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, in a Feb. 4 statement.

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee returns to base in Kings Bay, Georgia in 2011. The boat is reportedly the first to have some of its missiles armed with low-yield nuclear warheads. (Photo: James Kimber/U.S. Navy)The new type of warhead, called the W76-2, “demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” Rood added. The warhead is estimated to have an explosive yield of five kilotons, roughly one-third the yield of the bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Feb. 7 that “the bottom line” is that the new warhead gives the president “options [that will] allow us to deter conflict” and “if necessary…fight and win.”

The NPR report said the W76-2 would “ensure a prompt response option that is able to penetrate adversary defenses” and “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” The report argued that the low-yield warhead would counter Russia’s alleged “escalate-to-deescalate” strategy of threatening to employ tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional confrontation so as to deter further aggression and deescalate the conflict “on terms favorable to Russia.” Moscow denies having this strategy.

Russia criticized the new warhead’s deployment. The decision “reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war. This is extremely alarming,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov on Feb. 5.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), an opponent of the NPR report’s call for new low-yield warhead capabilities, described the administration’s decision to deploy the W76-2 as “misguided and dangerous.”

“This destabilizing deployment further increases the potential for miscalculation during a crisis,” Smith said in a Feb. 4 statement.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the panel’s ranking member, supported the deployment, saying that the weapon “enhances U.S. deterrence and tells Russia that any attempt to use nuclear weapons as part of an escalate-to-deescalate approach will not
be successful.”

Although the W76-2 was a controversial issue in Congress in 2019, lawmakers ultimately approved the Trump administration’s request for nearly $30 million to support fielding of the warhead in fiscal year 2020. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The Federation of American Scientists first reported on Jan. 29 that the W76-2 had been deployed at the end of 2019 on the USS Tennessee, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine based at Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced in February 2019 the successful completion of the first warhead at the Pantex plant in Texas and stated that it was on track to “deliver the units” to the U.S. Navy by the end of fiscal year 2019. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the NNSA has since produced about 50 W76-2 low-yield warheads.


The U.S. Navy has begun to field a new warhead on a U.S. ballistic missile submarine.

North Korea Douses Hope for New Talks

March 2020
By Julia Masterson

Negotiations between the United States and North Korea are unlikely to resume in 2020 absent a shift in the U.S. approach, according to multiple Pyongyang officials. “If the U.S. persists such hostile policy toward the DPRK…there will never be a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” said North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Jan. 21.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk together at the border of North and South Korea in June 2019. Kim has said North Korea will no longer be bound by his moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)Although he did not define “hostile policy” at the meeting, North Korean condemnation of U.S.-imposed stringent economic sanctions and the conduct of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises have headlined many North Korean statements.

Ju also said that Pyongyang may no longer observe its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing put in place in April 2018 to “build confidence with the United States.” He said Pyongyang has “no reason to be unilaterally bound” by its commitment, given that Washington “remains unchanged in its ambition to block the development” of North Korea. His remarks closely echoed those of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the December 2019 plenary meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, where Kim first announced Pyongyang’s shifted attitude toward talks with Washington. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Despite the North Korean rhetoric, the United States remains “cautiously optimistic” about North Korea’s bargaining position, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien told Axios on Jan. 12. Washington has “reached out to the North Koreans and let them know that we would like to continue the negotiations,” he added.

South Korea also supported renewing talks. “Momentum for North Korea-U.S. dialogue should continue,” said South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a Jan. 7 statement. “A show of force and threats are not helpful to anyone.”

Despite efforts by Washington and Seoul to revive dialogue, recent changes to Pyongyang’s defense and diplomatic leadership appear to reinforce North Korea’s new position. “It is the unwavering will of [North Korea] to further increase the strength of justice for defending its sovereignty and security and safeguarding the global peace and stability,” Ri Son Gwon said in his new role as foreign minister on Jan. 23. Ri is reportedly revered for his hard-line stance. North Korea also has a new defense minister, Army Gen. Kim Jong Gwan, who assumed his post on Jan. 22.

North Korean plans to follow through on its warning to resume nuclear and long-range missile testing remain unclear. North Korea is “trying to build a long-range ballistic missile with the ability to carry a nuclear warhead,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Jan. 24.

Recently captured satellite imagery also shows activity at North Korea’s Sanumdong missile research center, CNN reported on Jan. 26. The imagery depicts activity consistent with actions observed before previous North Korean missile tests, but experts appear divided on the meaning of the intelligence.

A North Korean leadership shake-up may indicate a harder line on nuclear talks with the United States.

Iran Displays New Solid-Fuel Missile

March 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran unveiled a new short-range ballistic missile and touted its solid-fueled rocket motor advancements during a Feb. 9 ceremony, demonstrating the nation’s continuing efforts to develop more sophisticated systems.

Gen. Amir Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guard's Aerospace Force Command, speaks in 2019. He announced Iran's development of a new, solid-fueled ballistic missile during a Feb. 9 ceremony. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)The new missile, named the Ra’ad-500, has a range of 500 kilometers, according to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force Command. Iran has previously developed missiles with similar ranges, but the command described the Ra’ad as lighter and more accurate.

The IRGC ceremony also featured a rocket engine fueled by a “new generation of propellants” and incorporating “moveable nozzles” for ballistic missiles and satellite launch vehicles. IRGC Aerospace Force Brig. Gen. Amir Hajizadeh said the technology will give Iran the ability to “control solid-fuel missiles in the outer space.”

France, a member of the multilateral group that negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, said in a Foreign Ministry statement on Feb. 10 that Iran’s ballistic missile program “undermines regional stability and affects the security of Europe.” The statement called on Iran to “fully comply with its international obligations.”

UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal, includes nonbinding language calling on Iran to refrain from activities relevant to developing ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable. The nuclear-capable missile threshold is generally understood to be a system that can deliver a 500-kilogram payload at least 300 kilometers.

Although the new missile appears to exceed that limit, Iran argues that its ballistic missiles are not designed to carry nuclear weapons and therefore not covered by Resolution 2231.

Iran also attempted to put the Zafar-1 satellite into orbit Feb. 9 using its three-stage Simorgh space launch vehicle. The launch took place at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport.

Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Defense Ministry, said on Feb. 9 that the first two stages of the rocket “functioned properly” and the “satellite was successfully detached from its carrier” but failed to achieve the necessary speed to enter orbit. Despite the failure, Hosseini described the launch as “remarkable.”

The Zafar-1 is the heaviest satellite Iran has attempted to launch and would have been used for remote sensing and communications, according to the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.

Iran has successfully launched satellites into orbit in the past, but recently suffered a string of failures. The Simorgh’s previous two launches, in 2017 and 2019, also failed to orbit satellites.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Feb. 11 that Iran’s satellite launches use technologies that are “virtually identical and interchangeable with those used in longer-range” ballistic missile systems. Satellite launch vehicles and ballistic missiles do share similar features, but long-range ballistic missiles require technologies, such as reentry vehicles, not necessary for space launch.

The Feb. 10 French statement also condemned the satellite launch as contrary to Resolution 2231, noting that the Simorgh uses ballistic missile technology.

Although the language on testing is nonbinding, Resolution 2231 prohibits Iran from transferring missiles and related technologies without approval from the Security Council. The United States has accused Iran of violating that provision on multiple occasions, and the UN secretary-general continues to investigate alleged incidents of illegal transfers.

The United States announced on Dec. 4 that it had seized a cache of Iranian missile components headed for Yemen in violation of international law.

U.S. Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson said the initial investigation into the seized parts “indicates that these advanced missile components are of Iranian origin,” but did not provide any details on what was seized. Reportedly, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard boarded a small boat in the Arabian Sea on Nov. 27 and discovered the cache, which has been described as the most advanced missile components bound for Yemen that the United States has intercepted.

A biannual report from the UN secretary-general on implementation of Resolution 2231 did not cover the seizure confirmed by the Pentagon on Dec. 4, but it said that the secretary-general’s office is investigating a U.S. allegation that Iran received a shipment containing a compound that can be used for solid-fueled rocket motor propellant in violation of Resolution 2231.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom also informed the secretary-general’s office that Houthi forces in Yemen launched a new medium-range ballistic missile that shares similar features to an Iranian system, the Qiam-1. They said that Iran “may be acting in breach” of Resolution 2231.

In a letter to the secretary-general, Iran denied the claim made by the European countries and said the argument that Resolution 2231 prohibits the transfer of missile technology is a “distortion of the text.” Iran also said that, for “political reasons,” the Security Council has been prevented from “actual operationalization for the necessary mechanism for making required decisions to permit such activities.”

The Dec. 10 report also included the secretary-general’s assessment of the cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles used in an attack against Saudi oil facilities in September.

Saudi Arabia provided the secretary-general’s office with access to debris from the attack and said on Sept. 18 that the weapons used were Iranian made. The United States also accused Iran of being behind the attack.

The secretary-general’s office examined the debris and was “unable to independently corroborate” that those systems came from Iran, but said that investigations into the origins of the systems are ongoing.


Iran presses forward with new technologies.

India Tests Submarine-Launched Missile

March 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

India conducted two tests of a nuclear-capable, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in January. When deployed, the missile, known as the K-4, will significantly expand India’s second-strike capability.

India tests its K-4 missile from a submerged platform in January. The Indian Navy plans to deploy the 3,500-kilometer-range missile on Arihant-class submarines. (Photo: Pallava Bagla/Corbis/Getty Images)The Jan. 19 and Jan. 25 tests of the K-4 were both conducted from submerged pontoons in the Bay of Bengal. The Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation, which developed the missile, did not comment on either test, but Indian officials were quoted in news outlets describing the launches as successful.

The K-4 has an estimated range of 3,500 kilometers. Prior to the January tests, it had been launched successfully in 2016 from a submarine, but a subsequent test in 2017 failed. Conducting the January 2020 tests from a submerged pontoon could have been intended to prevent any damage to India’s ballistic missile submarines in the event of a failure.

India plans to deploy the K-4 on its domestically built Arihant-class ballistic missile submarines. Two of the submarines are complete, and New Delhi intends to build two or three more. The existing submarines will likely be able to carry four K-4s, but subsequent submarines could be expanded to fit eight launch tubes.

India’s deployed nuclear-capable SLBM, the K-15, has an estimated range of 700 kilometers. The K-15 was successfully tested from an Airhant submarine in 2018 and likely deployed shortly afterward, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in November 2018 that the country’s first ballistic missile submarine had completed its inaugural deterrence patrol. (See ACT, December 2018.) Airhant-class submarines can carry up to 12 K-15 missiles.

At the time, Modi said India was pursuing a second-strike capability in response to “those who indulge in nuclear blackmail.”

The K-15’s range would allow India to target parts of Pakistan, but New Delhi would need the longer-range K-4 to reach Islamabad and northern parts of Pakistan. The extended range of the K-4 would also allow India to reach more targets in China. Increasingly, India’s focus on developing and deploying longer-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles appears directed at countering China, not Pakistan.

Pakistan has referred to India’s pursuit of SLBMs as destabilizing, arguing that they are the first “ready-to-fire” missiles deployed in South Asia.

Indian and Pakistani nuclear warheads are largely believed to be de-mated, or stored separately from delivery systems. On a submarine, however, de-mating is not feasible, and the warheads are installed atop the ballistic missiles.

India continues to develop its sea-based deterrent.

Nations Recommit to Nuclear Security

March 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

More than 140 states have endorsed a February declaration reaffirming their commitment to effective and comprehensive nuclear security at the third International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ministerial meeting on the subject. During the International Conference on Nuclear Security 2020, states also expressed support for the IAEA’s role in advancing and coordinating nuclear security efforts.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi speaks at the agency's International Conference on Nuclear Security, stressing the agency's continuing role in helping nations to prevent nuclear or radiological materials from falling into the wrong hands. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)In remarks opening the Feb. 10–14 conference in Vienna, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said that nuclear activities are “growing in a very sustained way” worldwide, creating a “magnet for groups with malicious intent” and requiring further action to prevent nuclear terrorism. He said the 2020 meeting included “record participation by ministers, which reflects the great importance” that states attach to nuclear security.

The IAEA held its first ministerial-level meeting on nuclear security in 2013 amidst a growing awareness of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism spurred in large part by the Nuclear Security Summits, a series of four head-of-state level meetings held every two years from 2010 through 2016. (See ACT, May 2016.) The summits aimed to minimize and secure weapon-usable nuclear materials in civil programs around the world. The second IAEA ministerial convened in 2016 after the summits ended and emphasized the importance of maintaining momentum on the nuclear security agenda. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)

In the 2020 declaration, the states emphasized that nuclear security is a state responsibility and encouraged national adoption of “threat mitigation and risk reduction measures.” The declaration also highlighted actions that states should take, including minimizing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU), where “technically and economically feasible.”

The declaration also highlighted the role the IAEA plays in “establishing and improving effective and sustainable national nuclear security regimes.” In the document, the states pledged support for the IAEA to continue assisting and fostering cooperative efforts in a number of areas, including information security and protecting against cyberattacks.

Grossi also emphasized the “indispensable” IAEA role in nuclear security, including acting as “the inclusive global platform for...cooperation.”

In the three years since the last ministerial conference, the IAEA provided radiation-detection equipment to 33 countries, provided training for more than 1,300 people, and released 12 new publications outlining best practices in nuclear security.

Grossi urged states to request IAEA expert peer-review and advisory missions, describing these services as “among the most important” the agency offers. He said the IAEA conducted 15 expert missions to advise states on how to improve nuclear security at certain facilities since 2016.

He raised concerns, however, about the sustainability of the agency’s resources to address the increasing requests for nuclear security assistance. Under the IAEA’s operating structure, its nuclear security activities are only minimally funded by the agency’s general budget. Instead, the bulk of agency nuclear security resources is provided by individual nations.

Requests by member states for IAEA nuclear security assistance is “constantly increasing,” Grossi said, adding that the nuclear security mission is “much too important to be dependent on extrabudgetary contributions.” A number of states committed to donate money to the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund during the 2020 conference.

In the U.S. statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette also called on states to continue providing the IAEA with the necessary resources to achieve its nuclear security mandate. He said the United States has provided $51 million to the agency’s nuclear security work over the past three years.

Brouillette highlighted that, in the three years following the prior conference, the United States worked to improve the physical protection of nuclear materials at 10 facilities around the world and has equipped 672 border crossings with radiation-detection systems. He also noted U.S. efforts to blend down 13 metric tons of surplus HEU in the United States and to support cooperative work to remove or dispose of more than 1,000 kilograms of nuclear material in other countries.

The meeting’s declaration also drew attention to the importance of an upcoming conference in 2021 on the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and its amendment, which entered into force in 2016.

The CPPNM established legally binding requirements for the security of nuclear materials in international transit and its 2005 amendment expanded the requirements to include physical protection of sites housing nuclear materials and domestic transit. Parties to the convention will hold a review conference in 2021 to assess the treaty’s implementation.

Grossi highlighted the agency’s role in encouraging member states to join the CPPNM and its amendment and noted that 10 states had ratified the amended convention since the 2016 meeting.


A Vienna meeting aims to sustain nuclear security efforts.

Budget Would Augment National Missile Defense

March 2020
By Kingston Reif

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 defense budget request seeks to supplement U.S. homeland missile defenses by modifying existing systems to defend against longer-range threats. Specifically, the budget submission for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) seeks funds to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to intercept limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency conducts a test of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii Dec. 10, 2018. The Trump administration is seeking $39.2 million in fiscal year 2020 to upgrade the weapon to supplement U.S. long-range missile defense capabilities. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)The MDA is asking for $39.2 million for the Aegis system to provide “an initial underlayer capability to” the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system based in Alaska and California. Its request also contains $139 million to “initiate the development and demonstration of a new [THAAD] interceptor prototype to support contiguous United States defense.” The agency is planning to test this capability in fiscal year 2023.

In addition, the MDA plans to test the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptor, which was originally designed to counter regional missile threats during their midcourse phase of flight, against an ICBM target this spring. Aegis interceptors can be based on Navy ships or on land.

Like the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, the mobile, land-based THAAD system was originally designed to defend against short- to intermediate-range missile threats in their descent phase of flight.

“[W]hat this budget really does for us is starts to say, let’s take advantage of these regional systems that have been so successful and are very flexible and deployable,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, the MDA director, told reporters on Feb. 10.

“When we say ‘layered homeland defense,’ what we mean is, we want to give the country options,” he said.

Such a layered missile defense theoretically could provide four opportunities to intercept an incoming North Korean ICBM: two shots with the existing GMD interceptors, a third shot with the SM-3 Block-IIA missile, and a fourth shot with an extended-range THAAD interceptor.

The proposal to expand the U.S. homeland missile defense footprint is consistent with the 2019 Missile Defense Review, which specifically called for bringing the SM-3 Block-IIA missile into the national missile defense architecture. (See ACT, March 2019.)

An increase in the number of U.S. interceptors capable of intercepting ICBMs could exacerbate Russian and Chinese concerns about the threat the defenses pose to their nuclear deterrents and prompt them to take steps to counter new U.S. missile defenses.

The administration is asking for a total of $20.3 billion for missile defense programs in fiscal year 2021, a decrease of $1.6 billion below the fiscal year 2020 appropriated level. Of that amount, $9.2 billion would be for the MDA, $7.9 billion would be for non-MDA-related missile defense efforts such as early-warning sensors and the Patriot system, and $3.3 billion would be for nontraditional missile defense and left-of-launch activities such as offensive hypersonic glide vehicles.

The MDA request of $9.2 billion would be a decrease of 12 percent from the fiscal 2020 level of $10.5 billion. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

The GMD system would receive about $1.7 billion under the budget proposal, a decrease of about $465 million below last year’s spending level. Of the $1.7 billion, $664 million would be for the new Next Generation Interceptor. The MDA decided to pursue development of the interceptor last year in the wake of the demise of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle. (See ACT, October 2019.)

The MDA “will continue design and development activities for two competitive interceptor development contracts scheduled to be awarded in 4th quarter of fiscal year 2020,” according to the budget documents. The agency is aiming to begin fielding the new interceptor in the late 2020s.

The MDA is proposing to request $9.3 billion for the GMD system between fiscal years 2021 and 2025. This is an increase of $3.7 billion, or 66 percent, above what the agency planned to request between fiscal years 2020 and 2024.

The budget request also includes $207 million “to define concepts and develop engineering requirements” to defend against new hypersonic missile threats.

To make room for increased investments in homeland missile defense, the request “reprioritizes lower return on investment missile defense research.”

Programs included in the fiscal year 2020 request that are not funded in the latest submission include two homeland missile defense radars for deployment in the Pacific, a space-based neutral particle beam to destroy missiles during their boost and midcourse phases of flight, a multiple-object kill vehicle to arm a single ground-based interceptor with several kill vehicles, and an airborne laser to zap ballistic missiles during their boost phase.

In addition, the budget request includes no funding for an Air Force program included in last year’s request to develop an air-launched interceptor for boost phase defense and for the Space Development Agency to study space-based interceptors.

The Trump administration is seeking to adapt existing missile defense systems to defeat longer-range targets.

Middle East WMD-Free Zone Process Moves Slowly

March 2020
By Julia Masterson

Along-awaited UN meeting on the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East took place Nov. 18–22 , 2019, but the next steps toward establishment of the zone are far from clear. Given that the conference did not produce a draft of a legally binding treaty, state delegates plan to convene again in November 2020. Before that, the prospective zone will be subject to deliberation at the 2020 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference beginning in April.

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov, shown here at an International Atomic Energy Agency reception in January, He has backed the November 2019 conference to discuss the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, saying the process could help to attract Israel to later talks. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Since 1995, debate on the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone has dominated the global nonproliferation landscape. Nuclear weapon-free zones, which emerged in parallel to the NPT, are considered a key feature of the global nonproliferation regime. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, a resolution co-sponsored by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia called for establishing a “zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems” in the Middle East. The zone would mark the world’s sixth nuclear weapon-free zone and the world’s first WMD-free zone.

The 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences reaffirmed support for the zone, but participants in the treaty’s 2015 review conference failed to reach consensus on provisions concerning the initiative. Dissenting opinions by the United States, UK, and Canada prevented unanimous adoption of a final conference document.

In 2015 the challenge centered around a divergence between the Egyptian and Israeli positions. (See ACT, June 2015.) Although Israel is not party to the NPT, an Israeli observer delegation attended the review conference. Israel is also the only state in the region believed to possess a nuclear arsenal.

The final draft resolution on the zone, supported by Egypt, set an early deadline of March 2016 for convening a conference to negotiate a treaty and omitted language that had featured in the 2010 consensus document that stipulated the initial conference be convened “on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at.” Personal records by U.S. diplomats involved in the negotiations indicate that the draft text was adopted despite the dissenting U.S. opinion, which matched that of Israel.

A document submitted by the Israeli delegation titled “Towards a Regional Dialogue in the Middle East” noted Israel’s stance that “in order to promote any significant regional security architecture in the Middle East it is imperative that the regional states do not adopt positions that prevent the other side from participating in what should be an inclusive regional process between all relevant stakeholders.” Although not explicit, Israel’s position likely relates to its refusal to partake in a mandated, time-bound process for creating a WMD-free zone without due attention to the “broad range of security challenges facing the region.”

At the conclusion of the 2015 review conference, Rose Gottemoeller, then U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that the U.S. decision to block final consensus stemmed from the “unrealistic and unworkable conditions” pertaining to the Middle Eastern zone by setting an “arbitrary deadline” for convening a conference by March 2016.

Three years later, Egypt introduced a resolution to the UN General Assembly calling for convening an annual UN conference to make progress on the zone in parallel with the NPT process. (See ACT, December 2018.) In the political declaration adopted by the inaugural November 2019 conference, the participants “welcome all initiatives, resolutions, decisions and recommendations on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction.”

The UN initiative, mandated by the 2018 UN General Assembly decision, and the conference proposed at the 2015 NPT Review Conference are not one and the same, but the United States remains unwilling to support any process that sets a timeline for discussions on establishment of the zone. Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, announced at a think tank discussion on Aug. 2, 2019, that the United States would not participate in the November 2019 UN conference. “The path to a ‘zone’ can only lie through practical steps and confidence-building measures aimed at building trust and ameliorating unfavorable conditions in the broader security environment,” Ford said in published remarks from the event.

In an exclusive interview with Arms Control Today, Jeffrey Eberhardt, special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, said that the United States “support[s] the establishment of such a zone if it is freely arrived at among the parties in the region.”

As recently as February 2020, at a side event of a meeting of the five nuclear-armed NPT states in London, Ford reiterated that the United States does not support the UN conference process.

Russia and the UK used the November 2019 conference to emphasize the need for an inclusive process. “To make progress, there needs to be a dialogue in which all states of the region feel they are able to participate, and their security concerns will be heard,” said Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the United Nations. Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov said the UN conferences “will be important for creating conditions for the inclusivity of the process, primarily Israel’s involvement in later stages.”

Although the November 2019 conference was held outside of the NPT framework, Russia and the UK expressed hope that the UN conference would help support a successful 2020 review conference.


An effort to discuss a zone free of weapons of mass destruction faces U.S. and Israeli resistance.

Russia Disputes OPCW Findings

March 2020
By Julia Masterson

Editor's Note: This article was republished on March 3, 2020, to clarify information about the OPCW's investigation and the Russian challenge to that investigation. The updated version also corrects an earlier error describing the number of inspectors dissenting to the OPCW findings.

Russia called a special UN meeting in January to challenge an international finding that a chlorine-based chemical weapon was used in Douma, Syria, in April 2018. The March 2019 assessment made by a fact-finding mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was based on environmental samples, interviews, and months of technical analysis.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya votes to veto a U.S. draft resolution in the UN Security Council on April 10, 2018. The draft resolution sought to find blame for the chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria earlier that month. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Russia has undertaken a campaign to criticize the assessment, which did not assign responsibility for the attacks, and convened a so-called Arria-Formula meeting at the United Nations in New York on Jan. 20. Arria-Formula meetings offer a unique avenue for UN Security Council members to discuss important issues outside of the council’s formal proceedings. Soon after the Douma attacks, Russia’s OPCW representative, Alexander Shulgin, said that “no evidence of a chemical weapon attack in Douma has been found.” Shulgin expanded on Moscow’s conclusion at the Jan. 20 Arria-Formula meeting, asserting that chlorine cylinders found at the scene had been staged for political provocation.

At the OPCW, Russia’s attempt to wage an information campaign over the findings of the March 2019 report has had limited impact, namely because “within the confines of the OPCW…both the staff of the Technical Secretariat and members of most state-party delegations have high levels of knowledge and expertise,” Jean Pascal Zanders, a veteran researcher, told Arms Control Today.

Russia’s call for an Arria-Formula meeting broadened its information campaign by targeting those perhaps less informed than OPCW staff and delegates. “Taking the matter to the UN in New York means that a different audience that is less familiar with the allegations and the investigative procedures and forensics could be influenced,” Zanders said.

Although Arria-Formula meetings are informal and generally off the record, a statement published by the U.S. mission to the UN said that the United States attended the meeting and “categorically objects to Russia’s blatant attempt to use a Security Council meeting to weaken the credibility of the OPCW and its findings on the Douma attack.”

Russia is not alone in its attempt to question the OPCW findings. A February 2019 document titled “Engineering Assessment of Two Cylinders Observed at the Douma Incident,” leaked by a dissenting OPCW inspector involved in the early stages of the Douma investigation, alleges that the cylinders found at the scene of the Douma attack “were manually placed…rather than being delivered from aircraft.” Another inspector anonymously leaked internal OPCW emails that he claimed demonstrated that the organization’s investigation of the Douma attack was flawed. One of the inspectors, Ian Henderson, suggested at the Arria-Formula meeting that there may not have been a chemical attack at all.

The online investigative journalism site Bellingcat and other independent experts and journalists who have reviewed these leaked documents have concluded that they do not undermine the conclusions of the FFM’s final report on the Douma incident.

As a result of the leaks, the OPCW launched an independent, external investigation into these breaches of confidentiality and released its results on February 6. OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias reaffirmed his support for the FFM report’s conclusions while criticizing the dissenters’ allegations. “Their conclusions are erroneous, uninformed, and wrong,” Arias said at a Feb. 6 briefing.

Russia invokes a rare UN process to question chemical weapons claims in Syria.

Controversial Firearms Rules Published

March 2020
By Ju-Hyun Kim and Jeff Abramson

Nearly two years after first opening a public comment period, the Trump administration officially published a controversial final rule that changes how certain firearms are exported from the United States. The move broke a second informal hold requested by a leading Democratic senator and faces a possible injunction that would block the rules from becoming effective on March 9.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks in Washington on Nov. 7, 2019. The Trump administration overrode his efforts to block a change in how the government oversees certain arms exports. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)Originally drafted during the Obama administration as part of a broader export control reform effort but never advanced to completion, the new rules were first shared by the Trump administration in 2018 for public review, with most public comments being negative. Congress received notification of the final rules in November 2019, and they were published on Jan. 23. The rules would transfer authority for the export of certain types of semiautomatic firearms and their ammunition that are currently controlled under the first three categories of the United States Munitions List (USML) to the Commerce Control List (CCL). Due to the different rules governing the lists, Congress does not receive notification of potential sales of weapons that are controlled by the CCL. In a revision to the administration’s first version of the rules, however, the Commerce Department would require licenses for the online publication of 3D gun-printing plans, which are currently considered exports and regulated under the USML.

The administration drew a rebuke from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This reckless decision not only makes it easier to export deadly firearms to human rights abusers, it removes these exports from congressional oversight and disapproval,” he said on Jan. 17 after learning the rules would soon be published. “Semiautomatic firearms and ammunition...are easily modified, diverted, and proliferated and are the primary means of injury, death, and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world. As such, they should be subject to more rigorous export controls and oversight, not less.”

Loss of congressional oversight and dangers around 3D-printed guns, also called “ghost guns,” was at the heart of Menendez’s February 2019 hold on the rules. After a measure in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have stopped the changes was not included in the final version of the NDAA, Menendez requested a second hold on the change on Dec. 10. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Repeating a 2019 effort, a group of state attorneys general also filed suit Jan. 23 to stop the changes, focusing primarily on the 3D gun issue. Led by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, attorneys general of 21 other states and the District of Columbia argued in part that the new rule failed to follow Arms Export Control Act requirements to assess the change’s effects on world peace and national security. They also argued that the new rule has significant loopholes that would make it easy to skirt online posting limitations. As of Feb. 27, the case had been assigned to a judge in Washington state, where a motion was filed for a temporary injunction, but it was unclear whether the rules would be blocked before Mar. 9, when the new rules would take effect.

A wide array of civil society groups, including gun violence prevention, human rights, and arms control organizations, also reacted negatively to the rule change. Business groups and the National Rifle Association, however, welcomed the change. “This is a tremendous achievement for the firearms and ammunition industry,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

In the final rules published, the Trump administration asserted that the new rule will allow the government to use its resources more effectively by only focusing on weapons and munitions that provide “a critical military or intelligence advantage.” The document also stated that the rule “does not deregulate the export of firearms” because the exports will still require an authorization by the Commerce Department, and all export license applications will still be subject to an interagency review.

The Commerce Department will now oversee certain firearms exports

France Offers Nuclear Deterrent to All Europe

March 2020
By Shannon Bugos

French President Emmanuel Macron offered to begin discussing with other European countries the role that France’s nuclear deterrent can play in their collective security.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks in France on Feb. 18. Citing a decline in multilateralism, he proposed earlier in the month that France's nuclear weapons provide a larger role for European security. (Photo: Jean-Francois Badias/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)France’s nuclear forces “strengthen the security of Europe through their very existence,” Macron said at the military school École de Guerre in Paris on Feb. 7. An erosion of “the comprehensive security framework” that protects Europe affects France’s defense strategy, he said, which means that “France’s vital interests now have a European dimension.” France’s nuclear deterrence “ensures our independence, our freedom to assess, make decisions, and take action. It prevents adversaries from betting on escalation, intimidation, and blackmailing to achieve their ends,” he said before extending the offer.

At the same time, Macron argued that the international community must limit the role of nuclear deterrence to “extreme circumstances of self-defense,” with the overall goal of preventing war.

“France’s nuclear doctrine strictly adheres to this framework,” he said. France currently has about 300 nuclear weapons in its arsenal.

During his address, Macron outlined three “paradigm shifts” underway in the world. The first he described as strategic, in which “a new hierarchy of powers” is emerging and bringing with it the heightened risk of conflict and military escalation due to competition.

The challenging of “a multilateral order based on law” defines the second paradigm shift, he said, illustrated by the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last August. (See ACT, September 2019.) “Europeans must collectively realize today that, without a legal framework, they could quickly find themselves at risk of another conventional and even nuclear arms race on their soil,” Macron said. “They cannot stand by.”

The final shift involves the emergence of new technologies and their potential role in conflict. All of these paradigm shifts, he said, demand that the world think about what the future of war will look like. Macron suggested that the heads of state of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) convene in order “to fully discharge [their] mandate to maintain peace and international security” in this changing landscape.

Macron presented a four-pillared strategy for confronting these paradigm shifts and achieving peace. The first pillar he called the “promotion of an efficient multilateralism,” to include an increased investment in defense by European countries and a renewed international arms control agenda.

Regarding arms control, the president urged Europe to “rethink disarmament” so that it contributes to international security and highlighted France’s “unique track record in the world,” given its irreversible dismantlement of land-based nuclear weapons, nuclear testing facilities, and fissile material.

The next two pillars Macron described were the development of strategic alliances focused on promoting peace and security and the establishment of greater European autonomy.

Macron dubbed national sovereignty as the final pillar, saying, “if France is to live up to its ambition and its history, it must remain sovereign.”

French President Macron seeks to enhance the role of France’s nuclear weapons.


Subscribe to RSS - March 2020