"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
September 2020

Arms Control Today September 2020

Edition Date: 
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
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U.S. Reinterprets MTCR Rules

September 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

The Trump administration announced on July 24 that it would unilaterally reinterpret how the United States will implement the 35-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in order to expedite sales of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to other countries. The move, which has been widely expected for some time, follows years of lobbying from major U.S. weapons manufacturers to allow more rapid export of large drones to a wider array of potential buyers. (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

A U.S. Air Force Predator drone armed with a Hellfire missile lands at a secret air base after flying a mission in the Persian Gulf region in January 2016. The Trump administration has announced a new interpretation of international export control guidelines to allow more U.S. sales of such weapons. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)The MTCR divides weapons into two categories. Exports of Category I systems, including cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft that have a range of at least 300 kilometers and the ability to carry a payload of at least 500 kilograms, are subject to a “strong presumption of denial.”

The revised U.S. policy will reinterpret how the MTCR applies to drones that travel at speeds under 800 kilometers per hour, such as the Predator and Reaper drones, which are made by General Atomics, and the Global Hawk drone, which is made by Northrop Grumman. “The U.S. government will treat a carefully selected subset of MTCR Category I [unmanned aerial systems (UAS)] with maximum airspeed less than 800 kilometers per hour as Category II,” according to a State Department fact sheet on the new policy.

In a statement, R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said, “We think this kind of reform is necessary in order to respond to a rapidly changing technological environment. With the growing proliferation of [the] technology, particularly by China, coupled with a growing demand for UAS for both military and commercial applications, we need to adjust U.S. policies to address U.S. national security concerns.”

“Not only do these outdated standards give an unfair advantage to countries outside of the MTCR and hurt United States industry, they also hinder our deterrence capability abroad by handicapping our partners and allies with subpar technology,” according to a White House statement on July 24.

The controversial move has been anticipated for weeks and has drawn criticism from several quarters. A chief concern is that the new U.S. interpretation of the MTCR, which depends on voluntary compliance, will prompt other missile- and drone-producing states to sidestep MTCR guidelines and weaken their value.

“This decision undermines a global regime, allows others to ignore international restraints, and focuses on economic benefits over U.S. national security, foreign policy and human rights concerns,” Rachel Stohl, a managing director at the Stimson Center and a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, told Reuters on July 24.

“The policy change will not give the United States more access to markets that the Chinese or Israelis already dominate,” Stohl told GovExec the same day. “The global market is increasingly focused on smaller UAVs, where Category I restraints do not apply. The decision further complicates U.S. relationships with multilateral regimes and further isolates the United States from its closest allies.”

“This reckless decision once again makes it more likely that we will export some of our most deadly weaponry to human rights abusers across the world,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged in a press statement.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats have bitterly complained that the Trump administration has sought to bypass congressional oversight of weapons transfers, and they have tried to block some major arms sales to states with subpar human rights records.

Among the states that could benefit from the new Trump policy on the MTCR are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have been denied requests to acquire U.S.-built drones capable of carrying large payloads. These two countries have also been found to be guilty of air strikes against civilian targets in their proxy war in Yemen, which has led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths and famine in that country.

The MTCR has been a key element for decades in U.S. and international efforts to try to constrain global exports of missile technology to nations considered to be nuclear proliferation threats, such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea.


Seeking to export more drones, the Trump administration has loosened export restrictions.

Saudi Arabia May Be Building Uranium Facility

September 2020
By Julia Masterson and Shannon Bugos

With Chinese support, Saudi Arabia may be constructing a new uranium processing facility to enhance its pursuit of nuclear technology, The Wall Street Journal reported on Aug. 4. Citing unnamed Western officials, the report said that a facility near Al Ula is intended to be used to produce concentrated uranium, known as yellowcake, from mined ore. The reported development comes as U.S. and Saudi officials have been unable to agree on the terms of a nuclear cooperation agreement to support Saudi plans to develop nuclear energy.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands at the 2016 G20 Summit in China. Recent reports have suggested that China is backing the construction of a uranium processing facility in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)The Saudi Energy Ministry reportedly has categorically denied the existence of such a facility at that location. If confirmed, such a facility could signify Saudi progress toward constructing an indigenous uranium enrichment program, as yellowcake production is a key step in refining uranium for civilian or military uses.

Saudi officials have stated their intent to pursue a uranium enrichment program as part of the country’s plan to build 16 civilian power reactors over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. (See ACT, October 2019.) Companies from the United States, Russia, South Korea, China, and France are competing for a contract to build the first two of the planned 16 nuclear power reactors, but Riyadh has yet to select a vendor.

Israel also raised concerns about the new facility to the Trump administration, Axios reported on Aug. 19. There are “worrying signs about what the Saudis might be doing, but it is not exactly clear to us what's going on in this facility," said one senior Israeli intelligence official.

Saudi Arabia is not believed to have any uranium enrichment program as of now, but mastery of the enrichment process could embolden Riyadh to enrich to weapons-grade levels.

Revelation of the facility and Saudi Arabia’s possible lack of transparency has spurred renewed concern from members of Congress about how the Trump administration might address Saudi nuclear ambitions.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Arms Control Today that “President Donald Trump’s cozying up to Saudi Arabia has threatened our national security interests and undermined our values,” referring in particular to the administration’s lack of response to the October 2018 murder in Turkey of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident.

“The return on this investment is now clear: a purported ally turning to China to accelerate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” said Kaine.

Meanwhile, three Democratic members from the House Foreign Affairs Committee—Reps. Joaquin Castro (Texas), Ami Bera (Calif.), and Ted Deutch (Fla.)—sent a letter on Aug. 17 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting information and a briefing on the recent revelation as it “raises further questions about whether Riyadh’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) led a bipartisan group of senators in writing an Aug. 19 letter to Trump also demanding further information and a briefing on the status of U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation negotiations and the state of U.S. discussions with China on Riyadh’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“Riyadh’s apparent lack of transparency regarding its nuclear efforts coupled with a growing ballistic missile program poses a serious threat to the international nonproliferation regime and United States objectives in the Middle East,” the senators wrote.

Concerns about Riyadh’s nuclear intentions have been exacerbated by rhetoric from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who in 2018 pledged that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.” (See ACT, June 2018.)

A U.S. intelligence analysis circulated in early August detailed a second newly constructed structure near Riyadh, according to an Aug. 5 report by The New York Times. Analysts speculated it could be an undeclared nuclear facility, but the confidence with which that assessment was made is not clear.

Reports of the existence of the site near Al Ula allege that Saudi Arabia was aided by China in its construction. Asked about China’s role in Saudi Arabia’s nuclear development, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Webin said Aug. 7 that “China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners,” who “maintain normal energy cooperation.” He did not address the suspected yellowcake facility, but said that Beijing “will continue [its] strict fulfillment of international obligations in nonproliferation and pursue cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy with other countries.” China and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear collaboration dates back to 2012, when the two countries signed their first cooperative pact.

Saudi Arabia has also received help from China on the significant expansion of its domestic ballistic missile program, according to U.S. intelligence agencies in June 2019. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

Currently, Saudi Arabia has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that is complemented by an outdated small quantities protocol, reflective of the negligible size of its nuclear program at the time its safeguards agreement was concluded in 2005. Under that protocol, Saudi Arabia is not obligated to invite IAEA inspectors into its nuclear facilities, including any potential yellowcake production facilities.

IAEA officials have been pushing for Saudi Arabia to transition to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement for several years as Riyadh has moved to expand its civilian nuclear program. Following the revelation of the possible yellowcake facility, Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, urged Riyadh on Aug. 8 to strengthen its agreement with the agency and invite inspectors in.

U.S.-Saudi negotiations on the nuclear energy cooperation deal, called a 123 agreement after the section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act requiring it, have stalled over the past year.

An April report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggested that U.S.-Saudi talks have faced two unresolved issues. First, Riyadh has not agreed to sign an additional protocol to its limited safeguards agreement, which would provide the IAEA with a broader range of information on its nuclear-related activities. Second, Saudi Arabia has so far declined to promise to forgo nuclear fuel production activities, a step that is called a nonproliferation “gold standard.” (See ACT, June 2020.)

A 123 agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear technology, equipment, and materials with other countries. A 123 agreement can include a gold standard commitment in which a cooperating country agrees to refrain from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, as those activities can be used to produce weapons-grade material. By forgoing those, countries adhering to a gold standard signal their commitment to nuclear nonproliferation.

In September 2019, Energy Secretary Rick Perry reportedly sent a letter to Saudi officials stating that the United States would require Saudi Arabia to adopt an additional protocol with the IAEA and commit to the gold standard. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Kaine questioned U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea during his July 21 hearing for the top arms control job at the State Department on whether he would maintain that requirement. The State Department leads negotiations on 123 agreements, which, once complete, require congressional approval.

“You have my commitment that I will pursue the so-called gold standard in these 123 agreements,” said Billingslea. “I believe [it] should also be pursued with the Saudis.” He did not address the additional protocol.


Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia could be starting a uranium enrichment program.

U.S. Withdrawal Raises Open Skies Questions

September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The remaining members of the 1992 Open Skies Treaty are moving forward with determining how the treaty will function following the planned withdrawal of the United States, but significant questions remain about how the treaty would function with the U.S. absence.

A Romanian AN-30B aircraft is used for an Open Skies Treaty observation mission in 2004. (Photo: OSCE)On July 6, the states-parties gathered for a videoconference to discuss the May announcement by the Trump administration that the United States will withdraw from the accord in November, citing issues with Russian compliance with and implementation of the treaty. (See ACT, June 2020.) U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on May 21 that Washington might reconsider its decision should Russia return to compliance. Signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

Hosted by treaty depositaries Canada and Hungary, the videoconference brought together 188 representatives from all 34 member countries, including the United States, according to a July 7 statement from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The representatives discussed “the overall impact on operational functionality of the treaty, the impact on the allocation of observation quotas and on financial arrangements within the treaty, and other potential effects on the treaty,” said the OSCE statement.

After the conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation, told Russian news agency TASS that “many participants in the videoconference spoke about the United States’ withdrawal in November as something foregone.” He further commented that Russia does not view the United States “as a partner who is able to negotiate.”

On July 8, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement alleging that the remaining states-parties “have not yet shown their willingness to assume responsibility for the treaty, to give a principled assessment of the actions of the U.S. administration, and to engage in a truly meaningful dialogue with Russia in order to resolve mutual claims.”

Russia has not definitively stated how it will respond to the U.S. withdrawal and has broadly conditioned its continued participation in the treaty on its national security interests.

“Russia will continue to assess its partners’ willingness to fully comply with their obligations under the treaty and seek mutually acceptable solutions to emerging problems,” but ultimately “no scenario can…be ruled out,” according to the foreign ministry statement.

The United States did not release a statement following the conference.

U.S. allies have continued to express their regret at the U.S. decision to withdraw and indicated their intention to remain a party to the treaty.

“We believe that the withdrawal by the U.S. is wrong,” said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Aug. 10. “Germany will continue to implement the Treaty on Open Skies and to do everything it can to preserve it.”

The states-parties will next convene in October, when flight quotas for 2021 will be determined.

How those quotas will be distributed in the absence of the United States is uncertain. Under the treaty, the United States can conduct 42 overflights a year. Most Canadian and European flights take place over Russia. Multiple states-parties are able to take part in an overflight, which has been beneficial to U.S. allies who do not possess properly outfitted aircraft.

The U.S. Air Force on July 14 officially cancelled the recapitalization program for the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used for treaty overflights. Congress appropriated $41.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Another unresolved issue is to what extent, if at all, states-parties, particularly Russia, can continue to conduct overflights of U.S. military bases in Europe after the official U.S. withdrawal.

In a May 22 letter to Esper, 21 Democratic members of the House Armed Services Committee expressed concern that “the United States has over 35,000 forward deployed troops and critical military equipment deployed in countries that will remain subject to Russian overflight under the treaty.”

Defense officials “have stated that there are currently no agreements in place with each of our partners that establish notification requirements in the event of a Russian overflight of U.S. forces and equipment,” the lawmakers said.

Some treaty flights resumed in August after all flights were halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. During Aug. 10–13, Russia conducted an overflight of Germany, the path of which included Ramstein Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base, and Spangdahlem Air Base, a NATO base.

Also uncertain is how imagery gathered from overflight data will be handled with respect to the United States and its allies. Under the treaty, all imagery collected from overflights is made available to any of the states-parties. Once Washington likely departs from the treaty in November, it will lose access to that data.

Russia has indicated that U.S. allies should not continue to share information gathered from Open Skies flights with the United States after its departure from the treaty.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on May 26 that “Washington itself should not harbor too much hope of maintaining access to all data received under the treaty if it withdraws from it.”

Meanwhile, the House version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) expresses the sense of Congress that the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the treaty did not comply with the fiscal year 2020 NDAA, which required the administration to notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the treaty.

The bill also requires a plan for how the United States will be notified of treaty flights over parties that host U.S. military and assets and an assessment of the potential effects of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty on how the United States will obtain unclassified imagery and other information that it currently obtains under the treaty.

The House Appropriations Committee included a provision in their version of the fiscal year 2021 defense bill that would rescind $158 million from fiscal years 2019 and 2020 in funding for the program and prevent it from being reprogrammed.


Treaty parties have begun to discuss how the agreement will work if the United States withdraws in November.

Russia Tests ASAT Weapon, U.S. Says

September 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Space Command alleged that “Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon” on July 15, ahead of lengthy but inconclusive talks between Washington and Moscow in Vienna on space security. Moscow disputed the claim that it conducted such a test.

A Russian rocket topped with the Cosmos 2543 satellite is erected in November 2019. Successfully launched in December, the satellite flew "in abnormally close proximity" of A U.S. satellite in July, according to U.S. officials. (Photo: Russian Defense Ministry)In a July 23 statement, Gen. John Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command, said that the test “is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

Space Command said a Russian satellite, Cosmos 2543, “operated in abnormally close proximity to a U.S. government satellite in low-earth orbit before it maneuvered away and over to another Russian satellite, where it released another object in proximity to the Russia target satellite. This test is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the satellite as an inspector system, as described by Russia.”

The United States has previously suggested that such an object can be used as a weapon to target other satellites.

Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, head of the United Kingdom’s Space Directorate, also expressed concern of the launching of “a projectile with the characteristics of a weapon.”

“Actions of this kind threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends,” he said on July 23.

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the statements by the United States and UK and said that the test had “not endangered any other space object” or “infringed on any norms and principles of international law.”

“The inspector satellite was launched to inspect a Russian satellite at close range, using special equipment for this purpose,” said the ministry on July 24. “This mission has collected valuable information about the technical maintenance status of the inspected spacecraft and transmitted it to the ground-based command system.”

This latest test comes after Space Command alleged that Russia tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile in April and two Russian satellites, Cosmos 2542 and 2543, made maneuvers near U.S. government satellites in February. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Delegations from the United States and Russia met in Vienna on July 27 for a dialogue on space security. Officials from the State, Defense, and Energy departments and the National Security Council made up the U.S. delegation.

“While our efforts are aimed at finding constructive paths forward for space security, we will certainly emphasize our great concern with ongoing Russian as well as Chinese efforts to weaponize the space domain,” said Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and international security, ahead of the talks.

Ford said that “our hope is that this meeting will allow us to explore ways to increase stability and security in outer space, as well as to advance the cause of developing norms of responsible behavior in that vital domain.” He later mentioned applying “the usual international humanitarian law or Law of Armed Conflict rules” to space and establishing “operator-to-operator engagement” as specific potential goals.

That same day, Ford also released a paper on arms control in outer space in which he urged Russia and China to “abandon [their] dreams of counterspace warfighting, and [their] unverifiable, ineffective, and disingenuous arms control proposals, and join with the United States in a new space security initiative.”

In June, the Defense Department released the Defense Space Strategy, outlining its goals for desired conditions in space over the next 10 years, which said that “China and Russia each have weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space.”

The State Department issued a statement at the conclusion of the space dialogue, which lasted for more than 13 hours. “The two sides exchanged views on current and future space threats, policies, strategies, and doctrine, and discussed a forward-looking agenda to promote safe, professional, and sustainable activities in space,” said the department. Statements from the State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the countries will aim to continue discussions on space security.

Russia maneuvered a satellite in July to within “abnormally close proximity” of a U.S. satellite, according to the U.S. Space Command.

House, Senate Differ on Nuclear Testing

September 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The House of Representatives voted on July 21 to prohibit funding to conduct or prepare to conduct a nuclear test explosion in its version of the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The vote sets up a likely clash with the Senate, which voted earlier to set aside funding to conduct such a test, if wanted by the Trump administration, in its version of the NDAA.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) speaks to the media in July. He introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to fund a resumption of nuclear test explosions if the Trump administration found such a step necessary. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)By a 227–179 vote, the House adopted an amendment to the bill offered by Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) to prohibit any fiscal year 2021 or prior-year funding “to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test that produces any yield.”

The Senate version of the NDAA, passed July 23, included an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that makes $10 million available for the United States to carry out a nuclear test “if necessary.” (See ACT, July/August 2020.)

Negotiators from the two chambers will next meet in conference to resolve differences in their respective legislation, but neither the negotiators nor a date for the conference have been set. Reports indicate that the talks, once started, will continue past the election in November.

Reps. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) and Susie Lee (D-Nev.) also introduced an NDAA amendment modeled on legislation by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) that would require a joint resolution of approval for any proposal to resume nuclear test explosions, the passage of which would require a supermajority of 67 senators. But the House Rules Committee did not rule the amendment to be in order, so it did not reach the floor for consideration.

Meanwhile, the House passed a package of fiscal year 2021 appropriations bills on July 31, including the defense and energy bills. Both bills also prohibit any funding for preparing or conducting a nuclear weapons test. The Senate has not yet taken action on those appropriations bills.

The amendments regarding a possible resumption of U.S. nuclear testing emerged after The Washington Post reported on May 22 that the Trump administration weighed whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion during a May 15 meeting with national security agencies. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton told The Guardian on July 22 that, during his time in the Trump administration, “[w]e had general discussions about it on a number of occasions, but there wasn’t a decision point.”

Nuclear testing, Bolton said, “is something we need for the credibility of the deterrent.”

Marshall Billingslea, U.S. special envoy for arms control, said that he was “unaware of any reason to engage in nuclear testing at this stage,” during his confirmation hearing for the State Department’s top arms control job on July 21.

He added, however, that he thinks “it’s important that we make clear to the Russians and the Chinese that it’s not okay to tell the world that you’re not engaged in testing with yield, when in fact you are.”

His comment reflected recent State Department compliance reports that Russia and China have engaged in activities that are inconsistent with the “zero yield” standard regarding nuclear testing. (See ACT, May 2020.)


Trump administration interest in nuclear testing has spurred lawmakers to address the issue in a major military spending bill and policy.

South Korea to Pursue Military Satellites

September 2020
By Kelsey Davenport

South Korea and the United States agreed to new guidelines in July allowing Seoul to develop solid fuels for space launch vehicles, which officials say they will use to launch military satellites to monitor North Korea.

South Korea's Naro space launch vehicle rockets successfully to orbit in January 2013. A new U.S.-South Korean agreement will allow Seoul to import solid-fuel rocket technology for its space launch vehicles. (Photo: Korea Aerospace Research Institute/Getty Images) South Korea had been previously prohibited from solid-fuel development under a 1979 agreement between Seoul and Washington that limited South Korean missile and rocket activities. Those guidelines have been revised several times to allow South Korea to extend the range and increase the payload of its ballistic missiles, but this is the first time Seoul will be able to develop and produce solid and hybrid fuels.

Although the use of solid fuel is restricted to space launches and cannot be used for ballistic missiles under the agreement, South Korea intends to use the more powerful rockets for launching satellites with military surveillance capabilities.

Kim Hyun-chong, deputy national security adviser, said in a July 28 press conference that the South Korean military needs “unblinking eyes” to monitor the Korean peninsula. South Korea has launched observational satellites in the past, but it does not have any military satellites in orbit and relies on satellite images shared by the United States.

Kim said Seoul “will soon have many low-orbit military satellites with excellent surveillance capabilities” allowing for 24-hour monitoring of the region.

North Korea criticized South Korea for its “evil intentions” on Aug. 2 and accused the country of increasing tensions. Pyongyang said Seoul’s steps to enhance its military power and increases in military spending are incompatible with pursing peace-building on the Korean peninsula.

The agreement has led to speculation that South Korea may use the solid-fuel technology for ballistic missiles down the road. Solid-fueled rocket motors can be launched more quickly, making preemption more difficult, and the fuel is more cost effective.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for “missile sovereignty” on July 29, the day after the revised guidelines were announced, but did not detail what that means for the future of the country’s ballistic missile program.

Kim indicated that South Korea may pursue an extension of the current range limits for its ballistic missiles, noting that the question will be “resolved in due time.” The original 1979 agreement limited South Korea to ballistic missiles capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload to a range of 300 kilometers. In 2012 the two countries agreed to extend the range to 800 kilometers, and the payload restriction was eliminated in a 2017 agreement. (See ACT, November 2012.) The 800-kilometer range allows South Korea to target any part of North Korea.

South Korea also announced plans to pursue a new system to intercept North Korea’s long-range artillery, according to the country’s recently released defense blueprint for 2021–2025. The system will be indigenously developed, but based on Israel’s Iron Dome.

North Korea is believed to have stationed large caliber artillery along the border between the two countries that is capable of targeting Seoul.

The new system will “focus on protecting the capital area,” according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.


Under a revised U.S.-South Korean agreement, Seoul will be allowed to developed solid-fueled space-launch vehicles.

ATT Takes On Arms Diversion

September 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Members of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) focused on preventing the diversion of conventional weapons to unauthorized uses and users as they conducted the treaty's sixth annual conference Aug. 17–21. While primarily making procedural decisions and continuing to avoid discussion of controversial arms transfers, conference participants formalized a mechanism for sharing confidential information that drew criticism from civil society for its potential to exclude stakeholders.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross speaks in China in 2018. In a statement to the Arms Trade Treaty's sixth annual conference in August, Maurer questioned the arms trade practices of many states. (Photo: Thomas Peter/pool/Getty Images)Concern over the coronavirus pandemic spurred conference organizers to conduct the meeting via written statements only, rather than using in-person or virtual platforms that allowed for real-time dialogue.

Argentina, which held the presidency of the conference, chose information sharing and transparency for preventing diversion as a special theme. To further that effort, conference president Federico Villegas presented a working paper with eight recommendations. The first was to continue work to establish a forum for states to discuss diversion cases. States-parties adopted the idea, deciding to establish the Diversion Information Exchange Forum (DIEF), with a first formal meeting to be organized by the next ATT president, and to review its usefulness during the eighth conference of states-parties.

The DIEF’s terms of reference, however, were only available to states-parties and signatories, and the mechanisms for others to participate were not fully clear. Numerous civil society leaders and groups expressed concern about the possible exclusion of civil society and other stakeholders from the process.

Those concerns were also echoed in findings from the ATT Monitor, the civil society-led initiative for monitoring treaty implementation led by the Control Arms campaign. That research found an increasing number of annual reports were being kept confidential, with 11 percent of reports in 2018 marked that way, as opposed to just 2 percent in 2015. The report also expressed concern about declines in on-time reporting, recognizing that the pandemic may have posed challenges for some states. It found that only 37 percent of states-parties met this year’s May 31 deadline for submitting reports on last year’s arms transfers, down from nearly 50 percent a year earlier.

As at past conferences, states-parties also generally avoided discussing controversial arms transfer decisions, such as those allowing arms to go to countries engaged in the civil war in Yemen or to Libya where a UN arms embargo was in place. In his written statement, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, drew attention to the need for change in state practices. “I remain gravely concerned by the apparent disparity between the treaty’s obligation to ensure respect for [international humanitarian law] in arms transfer decisions and the arms transfer practices of too many states. This calls into question the treaty’s credibility and effectiveness,” he said.

Despite the challenges of holding a meeting during the pandemic, Villegas cited many accomplishments in a video address closing the conference. He also noted that treaty membership has increased to 110 states-parties, with six countries—Afghanistan, China, the Maldives, Namibia, Niue, and Sao Tome and Principe—joining since the 2019 conference. He saw the addition of these countries, China in particular, as indications of the value of the treaty and as support for multilateralism.

China’s accession had been anticipated, making it the third of the top five global exporters of major conventional weapons to join the treaty, along with France and Germany, who were among the original 2013 signers and ratified the treaty in 2014. Neither the United States nor Russia, the world’s largest arms exporters, are states-parties.

China rebutted international concerns about its arms trade practices, declaring in its statement to the meeting that it “has always taken a prudent and responsible approach and exercised strict control on its arms export[s].” China also took the opportunity to criticize the United States, calling it “some country” that “by abusing arms trade as a political tool, flagrantly interferes in the internal affairs of other countries and pursues hegemony and bullying policy, which undermines international and regional peace and stability.” It also appeared to take a jab at U.S. President Donald Trump’s frequent blaming of China for the pandemic, saying that geopolitical tensions and other ills are “driven by the political ‘virus’ from some country.”

The United States, which in 2019 did not attend the annual conference and moved away from the treaty by stating it had no legal obligations arising from its 2013 signature, participated in the conference and other meetings this year. (See ACT, May 2019.) Although not issuing a formal statement at the conference, a State Department official told Arms Control Today on Aug. 20 that Washington was participating in 2020 meetings as an “observer in order to protect and promote U.S. interests in the international arms trade.” The official also said, “[W]e look forward to China complying with the obligations it has assumed by becoming a state-party and becoming a responsible participant in the international arms trade.”


The Arms Trade Treaty’s annual conference established a controversial closed forum to address the diversion of arms to unauthorized uses and users.

Inspector General Reviews U.S. Arms Sales

September 2020
By Jeff Abramson

Congressional oversight of U.S. arms sales to the Middle East drew a spotlight in August when a new State Department Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report was released examining the propriety of emergencies the Trump administration declared in 2019 to speed certain exports. At the same time, administration officials continued to press for new weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Models of U.S.-supplied Saudi Royal Air Force fighter jets are displayed at the 2017 Dubai Airshow. Last year, the Trump administration declared an emergency to forestall congressional review of certain U.S. arms sales to the Middle East. (Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)Claiming heightened threats from Iran and frustrated by holds put on arms sales, the Trump administration declared an emergency in May 2019 allowing it to bypass a review period that would customarily have followed formal notifications for 22 arms transfer cases to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, valued at approximately $8.1 billion. Among these were at least $3.8 billion in precision-guided munitions, which were central to extremely rare Congressional joint resolutions of disapproval passed in July 2019, that were then vetoed by President Donald Trump. (See ACT, September 2019.) It was during this period that a request was made for the OIG to investigate whether the emergency declaration was proper.

The OIG investigation, conducted from October to December 2019, but only released in August, did find that the State Department had followed the law. It also noted that a fraction of the weapons included in the May 2019 emergency declaration had been fully delivered by late 2019.

The May 2020 firing of Inspector General Steve Linick recently raised concerns that his dismissal might be related to the investigation. (See ACT, June 2020.)

The report did not assess whether an emergency existed in 2019, but members of Congress continued to press that question. Shortly after the report was released, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) sent a letter to R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, expressing concern that his 2019 testimony about there being an emergency was untrue given the report's timeline of how that declaration
was made.

In an Aug. 17 response letter, Cooper defended the State Department and his prior testimony, and cited recent announcements of the UAE and Israel moving to establish normalized relations as further indication of the wisdom of the sales. He also asked Congress to conclude its informal review of potential sales to the UAE of small arms and chain guns, and of Paveway IV guided munitions and other weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, noting that the customary informal review period deadline had ended between two and eight months ago. Separately, Trump said on Aug. 19 that sales of F-35 aircraft to the UAE were under review.

In recent months, media reports have indicated that the administration has been planning to do away with the informal review process, particularly due to holds placed on weapons to Saudi Arabia. Cooper's letter, however, appeared to indicate that on the weapons referenced the administration would wait for the informal process to conclude before making a formal notification. The OIG report noted that 15 of the 22 cases that were part of the emergency declaration in 2019 had been subject to an informal hold, six for more than a year.

The OIG report also found that the department approved transfers of weapons below the threshold for congressional notification, with an estimated $11.2 billion in approvals to Saudi Arabia and the UAE between January 2017 and late 2019. It also concluded “that the department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties” as related to the precision guided munitions.

Under the Arms Export Control Act, transfers of major defense equipment valued at $14 million or more, and non-major defense equipment at $50 million or more, to countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE must be formally notified to Congress, which starts a 30-day review period during which Congress could block the administration from agreeing to the transfer. By custom but not by law, that formal process is preceded by a 40-day informal notification during which members of Congress have often put a “hold” on sales.

The Trump administration continues to push Middle East arms sales after an internal U.S. State Department report was released.

Iran, IAEA Reach Agreement

September 2020

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached an agreement that will allow inspectors to access two sites in Iran as part of the agency’s investigation into possible undeclared nuclear activities and materials.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks to reporters in Vienna on Aug. 26 after returning from Iran, where he and Iranian officials agreed to resolve an inspections dispute.  (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)The agreement was announced Aug. 26 during IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi’s trip to Tehran. The agency first requested access to the two locations, which are not part of Iran’s declared nuclear program, in January 2020.

According to IAEA reports issued in February and May, the nuclear activities and materials at the two undeclared locations pertain to Iran’s pre-2003 nuclear weapons program and are not ongoing. The IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors passed a resolution in June calling upon Iran to cooperate with the agency’s investigation.

Iran told the IAEA in June that it was willing to comply with the agency’s requests, but certain legal ambiguities needed to be addressed.

The joint IAEA-Iran statement said that Iran will voluntarily provide IAEA inspectors with access to the two locations specified by the IAEA and will facilitate “the IAEA verification activities to resolve these issues.” The statement said a date for the inspection was set, but did not provide any detail on when the IAEA visits will occur.

The Aug. 26 statement said that in the “present context” the IAEA does not “have further question to Iran and further requests for access,” but looking forward, Grossi told reporters in Vienna the same day that “if we have information that warrants asking questions and, if necessary, access, we will do it.”—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Iran, IAEA Reach Agreement

Nuclear Ban Treaty Nears 50th Ratification

September 2020

Four nations used the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to announce their ratification of the 2017 Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The ratifications by Ireland, Nigeria, and Niue, announced on Aug. 6, and Saint Kitts and Nevis, announced on Aug. 9, bring the number of states ratifying the accord to 44. The treaty will enter into force 90 days after the 50th state deposits its instrument of ratification. To date, 82 states have signed the treaty.

The TPNW is the first international instrument to comprehensively ban the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons. All states-parties engaging in these activities are bound to submit and implement a plan to divest themselves completely of nuclear weapons upon ratification.

At an Aug. 6 event to mark the new ratifications, Elayne Whyte Gomez of Costa Rica, who presided over the negotiations on the treaty, called for renewed determination to ensure that no other city suffers the same as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She noted that “the presence in the room of the hibakusha ensured that we wouldn’t leave the room without completing the task.”

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria, the current president of the UN General Assembly, called on “all member states to sign and ratify [the TPNW]. We must prevent such destruction from ever happening again.”

Treaty supporters hope to secure the additional ratifications necessary to bring the treaty into force by the end of 2020. More states are expected to ratify the treaty next month as the United Nations on Sept. 26 marks the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Nuclear Ban Treaty Nears 50th Ratification


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