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"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
Issue Briefs

Biden’s Disappointing First Nuclear Weapons Budget

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Volume 13, Issue 4, July 9, 2021

As the Biden administration prepares to initiate a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, its first budget request proposes to continue every part of the unnecessary and unsustainable nuclear weapons spending plans it inherited from the Trump administration. This includes the controversial additions made by President Trump to the Obama-era program, such as additional, more usable lower-yield nuclear capabilities.

The budget submission is a disappointing and unfortunate missed opportunity to put the plans on a more stable and cost-effective footing. The request is also inconsistent with President Biden’s stated desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and seek new risk reduction and arms control arrangements with Russia and perhaps China.

During the campaign, President Biden rightly said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and that his “administration will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary for a credible nuclear deterrent, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current modernization plan are rising fast amid a flat defense fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget request and the potential for no growth beyond inflation budgets over the next several years.

According to the most recent Congressional Budget Office assessment of the cost of nuclear forces published in late May, the United States as of the end of the Trump administration is planning to spend $634 billion over the next decade to sustain and modernize the arsenal. This is an increase of $140 billion, or 28%, from the previous 10-year projection just two years ago.

The Biden administration maintains that its budget request ensures that the nuclear modernization effort is “sustainable.” But the warning signs indicating that the plans cannot be achieved on budget or on schedule are everywhere. And they are increasingly flashing bright red. It is not at all clear that the Biden administration fully appreciates the magnitude of the challenge it is facing.

Whether the budget proposal turns out to be a placeholder pending the outcome of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that may lead to adjustments of the current program of record, or a harbinger that Biden intends to stick with the Trump administration’s more expansive nuclear plans remains to be seen.

Regardless, sticking with the Trump plans for another year could make it harder to adjust course later. The Biden administration could – and should – have paused some of the most controversial modernization efforts pending the outcome of its NPR.

In keeping with President Biden’s views, the administration’s forthcoming NPR should pursue a nuclear posture that is more stabilizing, supports the pursuit of additional nuclear risk reduction and arms control measures, and frees up taxpayer dollars for higher priority national and health security needs.

The Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request

The Obama administration committed to an overhaul of nearly the entire nuclear arsenal in 2010 as part of its effort to win Republican support in the Senate for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). At the time, the effort was estimated to cost approximately $200 billion over the ensuing ten years.

What the Obama administration kickstarted, the Trump administration continued and expanded in the name of countering Russian and Chinese nuclear advancements and more aggressive behavior. Spending on nuclear weapons grew significantly over the past four years, due in part to cost overruns in programs that began under the Obama administration and new nuclear capabilities proposed by the Trump administration. 

Now, the Biden administration is requesting $43.2 billion in fiscal year 2022 for the Defense and Energy Departments to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure. That includes $27.7 billion for the Pentagon and $15.5 billion for the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The proposed spending on nuclear weapons constitutes about 5.7% of the total national defense request of $753 billion.

A straight “apples to apples” comparison of the Biden submission to what Trump requested and Congress largely supported in fiscal year 2021 – $44.5 billion – and what Trump projected to request for FY 2022 – $45.9 billion – is difficult because the Biden proposal appears to reclassify how spending on nuclear command, control, and communications programs is counted, leading to a lower requested amount.

Based on the CBO’s estimates, continuing with the Trump administration’s plans would consume as much as 9% of the Biden administration’s plans for total national defense spending over the next decade. In the latter years of the decade, spending on nuclear weapons could exceed 10% of the military budget. 

The budget request would notably continue the Trump proposals to expand U.S. nuclear capabilities. The additions and their requested funding amounts include:

  • $15 million for early development of a new low-yield nuclear sea-launched cruise missile;
  • nearly $134 million for continued early development of a new high yield submarine launched ballistic missile warhead (the W93) and associated aeroshell;
  • $98.5 million to sustain the B83-1, the only remaining megaton class warhead in the arsenal, including to begin alterations to extend its service life; and
  • nearly $1.9 billion to build the capability to produce at least 80 plutonium pits – or cores – for nuclear warheads per year at two sites.

The requests for the W93, B83-1, and pit production are all very similar to the Trump administration’s projected funding levels in fiscal year 2022. It is not clear what the Trump administration would have proposed for the new sea-launched cruise missile.

As with most new administrations, the Biden administration only had time for a quick review of the fiscal year 2022 budget plans bequeathed by its predecessor. However, the Pentagon did review some nuclear weapons systems, notably the Trump plans for a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead variant, known as the W76-2, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.

The Navy began fielding the W76-2 in late 2019. The new cruise missile is undergoing an analysis of alternatives to determine possible options for the weapon. The CBO estimates the cost of the missile at $10 billion over the next decade.

The future of the new cruise missile appears to be a low priority for the Navy and rightly so given it is a redundant and costly hedge on a hedge. Despite the inclusion of funding for the weapon in the budget request, preliminary budget guidance issued by acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker on June 4 called on the service not to fund the weapon in fiscal year 2023.

Triad Budget Request Grows Beyond Projections

In addition to continuing with the Trump add-ons, the budget request would also sustain – and then some – plans that began during the Obama administration to replace long-range delivery systems for all three legs of the nuclear triad.

In fact, three legacy programs – the long-range standoff missile (LRSO) to buy a new fleet of air-launched cruise missiles, the Columbia class to buy a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, and the ground based strategic deterrent (GBSD) to buy a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – are slated to receive a combined nearly 15% increase above what the Trump administration was planning to request. 

The LRSO would receive $250 million more in FY 2022 than the Trump administration was planning to seek. The Air Force has not explained the rationale for this large increase. The service accelerated the program last year following the decision to proceed with a single contractor for the weapon. (The Air Force awarded the development contract to Raytheon on July 1.)

The only major delivery system program that would receive a decrease below what was projected by Trump is the program to further life extend the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile in the wake of a Congressional cut to the program in FY 2021.

The Columbia-class, GBSD, and B-21 long-range bomber programs are each poised cost between $100-$150 billion after including the effects of inflation and likely cost overruns, easily putting them among the top 10 most expensive Pentagon acquisition programs.

NNSA Budget Is Flat But Remains High

While most of the debate about how to approach nuclear modernization focuses on the Pentagon and the delivery systems, the exploding price tag of the NNSA’s modernization plans continues to fly under the radar. Spending on NNSA weapons activities grew by nearly 70% during the Trump administration. 

The administration’s request of about $15.5 billion for nuclear weapons activities at the NNSA is an increase of about $139 million above the fiscal year 2021 level, but a decrease of $460 million below the Trump projection of $15.9 billion for fiscal year 2022.

In addition to funding the new warhead and facility projects proposed by the Trump administration, the request also keeps on track the Trump plans for the B61-12 gravity bomb, W87-1 ICBM warhead, and W80-4 air-launched cruise missile warhead upgrade programs. In order to prioritize warhead life extension programs and pit production recapitalization, the agency is proposing to reduce funding for stockpile research, technology, and engineering activities as well as efforts to replace aging infrastructure. 

The topline NNSA weapons request is the first decrease from a prior year request since fiscal year 2013 and from a prior year projection since fiscal year 2016 – though from a much bigger baseline. Last year, Congress provided approximately $15.4 billion, a mammoth increase of $2.9 billion above the FY 2020 appropriation. A mere two years ago, the FY 2020 budget request projected a FY 2022 request of $13 billion for weapons activities. Or $2.5 billion less than the actual FY 2022 request.

The reality is that the scope of the NNSA nuclear weapons modernization effort has been overloaded to such a degree that it cannot be executed in the absence of sustained significant growth above inflation over the next several years. And even then, such increases might not be enough to meet the aggressive schedule goals for many of the agency’s nuclear warhead and infrastructure replacement efforts.

For example, the budget request revealed that the estimated cost of a facility at the Savannah River Site intended to produce 50 plutonium pits per year pursuant to the current 80 pit annual goal has risen from up to $4.6 billion – a figure which the Trump administration’s plutonium strategy was based on – to up to $11.1 billion, which is a 141% increase. The agency has also said that completion of the project will be delayed by up to five years. To make matters worse, the design for the facility is only 30% complete.

In sum, the Biden administration has ignored these budget realities in its latest budget request for NNSA weapons activities. It acceded to the Trump baseline, but at a lower level than planned and without changing the scope of the modernization effort. Given the rampaging cost of the agency’s plans, the administration won’t be able to punt again in FY 2023 and beyond. It will need to either produce significant additional budget increases for weapons activities or reduce the ambition of the modernization plans.

Mounting Execution Challenges and Opportunity Costs

While supporters of the status quo on nuclear modernization continue to argue that the effort is affordable and achievable, the facts tell a different story. In the past year alone:

  • The projected 25-year cost of the NNSA’s nuclear warhead and infrastructure sustainment and modernization plans rose from $392 billion to $505 billion. On top of that, as noted above, the projected cost to build the pit production facility at Savannah River rose from up to up $4.6 billion to up to $11.1 billion, and the start date has been delayed by two to five years.
  • The projected GBSD program acquisition cost rose from $85 billion to $95.8 billion.
  • The FY 2022 budget request for the Columbia and LRSO programs is a combined $1 billion more than Trump planned as of last year.
  • The Government Accountability Office concluded that “every nuclear triad replacement program...and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays.”

The CBO report published in May showed that the projected cost of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans grew by a whopping $62 billion (or 29%) during the six common years (FY 2021-FY 2026) covered by their estimate as of the end of the Obama administration. And there appears to be no end in sight to the growth.

The rising cost of the nuclear weapons mission continues to force hard choices for the Pentagon as to what other priorities must be cut back. For example, Rear Adm. John Gumbleton, the Navy’s budget director, told reporters on May 28 that the service’s decision to only buy one instead of two new destroyers “was absolutely an affordability question, where the goal of the department was to balance the first priority, which was investment in Columbia recapitalization.” For the second year in a row, members of Congress have strongly criticized the Navy’s shipbuilding budget proposal as inadequate.

In addition, the Pentagon is once again proposing to slash funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which supports global efforts to detect and secure dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus. The budget request for the program is clearly inconsistent with one of President Bidens’s top priorities, combatting the pandemic, as well as his call for augmenting nuclear material and global health security.

Recommendations for the Nuclear Posture Review

The Biden administration must keep these execution challenges and growing opportunity costs in mind as it conducts its NPR this year. Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, developing new weapon capabilities, and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.

But planned spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Moscow and Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.

It is imperative that the White House provide clear direction to the Pentagon to produce real options for decision by President Biden consistent with his goal of reducing the role of and spending on nuclear weapons and seeking new arms control arrangements. These options must include the posture and budget implications of more cost-effective alternatives to the current program of record, which would be in keeping with the administration’s desire to adopt a more integrated approach to deterring adversaries.

Examples of such options include reducing the size of the deployed strategic nuclear arsenal below the New START limits, deferring and/or adjusting the scope and pace of the GBSD program, and scaling back plans at the NNSA to build newly-designed ICBM and SLBM warheads and produce at least 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030.

Reshaping the spending plans consistent with such adjustments could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Moreover, the longer it takes to begin the NPR, which has yet to formally start, the greater the danger that the administration could miss the window to include any potential changes to the current modernization plans in the FY 2023 budget request. Biden administration officials have stated that certain decisions about force structure and modernization will be accelerated during the review process to inform the next budget submission, as past NPR’s have typically taken about a year to complete. But the window will only be open for so long.

The Biden administration missed an opportunity in its first budget request to begin building back a better nuclear strategy. It can’t afford to waste another opportunity to do so. Continuing along the current course is a recipe for a major budget collision that would weaken American security.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research associate

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As the Biden administration prepares to initiate a review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, its first budget request proposes to continue every part of the unnecessary and unsustainable nuclear weapons spending plans it inherited from the Trump administration.

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Responses to Common Criticisms of Adjusting U.S. Nuclear Modernization Plans

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Volume 13, Issue 3, May 18, 2021

With the Biden administration set to release its fiscal year 2022 budget request May 27 and conduct a more comprehensive review of nuclear policy later this year, the debate about how the United States should approach nuclear modernization has reached a fever pitch.

The nation is planning to spend at least $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to maintain and upgrade nearly its entire nuclear arsenal. This explosion of spending comes at a time when a devastating global pandemic has redefined how many Americans think about security, China’s growing role on the global stage poses multifaceted challenges, and most experts believe that the U.S. defense budget will remain flat over the next several years.

While the Trump administration expanded the role of and spending on the arsenal and turned its back on arms control as a national security tool, the Biden administration in its interim national security strategic guidance released in March said that it “will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”

The Biden administration smartly and quickly agreed with Russia to a five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) without conditions and pledged to “pursue new arms control arrangements.”

But there is more work to do. Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast.

The Biden administration’s topline discretionary budget request released in April said that “While the Administration is reviewing the U.S. nuclear posture, the discretionary request supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that these efforts are sustainable.” But there are several modernization efforts that do not meet the “sustainable” criterion.

The administration can and should move the United States toward a nuclear strategy that will continue to ensure an effective nuclear deterrent, reflects a narrower role for nuclear weapons, raises the nuclear threshold, is more affordable, and supports the pursuit of additional arms control and reduction measures designed to enhance stability and reduce the chance of nuclear conflict.

Below are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 


Claim: Nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much.

Response: The reality is that the financial cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is growing increasingly punishing. President Trump’s fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons was a 19 percent increase over the previous year.

Though the sunk costs to date have been relatively minimal, spending on nuclear weapons is slated to increase dramatically in the coming years. In contrast, the topline national defense budget will likely be flat at best. (The Biden administration’s FY 2022 defense topline request does not keep pace with inflation.) Nearly the entire arsenal is slated for an upgrade and/or replacement at roughly the same time, and the bulk of the modernization portion of the cost will occur over the next 10 to 15 years.

One oft-heard claim in support of the status quo is that even at its peak in the late-2020s, spending on nuclear weapons is affordable because it will only consume roughly 6.4 percent of total Pentagon spending. But this figure is misleading for several reasons. The estimate, which was prepared to inform the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, is now nearly 4 years old. The projection also does not include spending on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous Energy Department agency whose nuclear weapons activities are part of the national defense budget. Since the end of the Obama administration, NNSA weapons activities spending has grown by roughly 70 percent. When NNSA spending is included, nuclear weapons already accounted for 6 percent of the total FY 2021 national defense budget request.

Program cost overruns and likely schedule delays are poised to exacerbate the financial challenge. Last year, the NNSA requested an unplanned increase of $2.8 billion relative to earlier planning. The agency’s 25-year plan published in December showed that projected spending on nuclear weapons activities has risen to $505 billion. That is a staggering increase of $113 billion from the 2020 version of the plan.

The scope and schedule goals for the nuclear modernization effort are highly aggressive and face major execution problems. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report published in May, “every nuclear triad replacement program—including the B21, LRSO, GBSD, and Columbia class submarine, and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays due to program-specific and” Defense and Energy Department “wide risk factors.” Extending the schedule for these programs will increase their cost.

The growing price tag of the nuclear mission is coinciding with Pentagon plans to recapitalize large portions of the nation’s conventional force. The last time the United States simultaneously modernized its conventional and nuclear forces in the 1980s, it did so alongside an increasing defense budget, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work recently noted. “With such increases, the Pentagon did not have to trade conventional capability for nuclear forces,” Work points out, but “unless something changes, that will not be the case this time.”

Indeed, in order accommodate the multi-billion dollar unplanned budget increase in FY 2021 for the NNSA, the Navy was forced to cut a second Virginia-class attack submarine from its budget submission. Congress ultimately added the second Virginia back to the budget, but the episode illustrates the significant threat that spending nuclear weapons spending poses to other national security and military priorities.

As the cost of nuclear weapons continues to rise, the choices that are made about what not to fund to pay for them are going to get more difficult, especially amid a flat defense budget. And the longer the government waits to make those hard choices, the more suboptimal they are going to get.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear force structure and modernization plans in the face of growing Russian and Chinese nuclear threats would be unwise.

Response: The Biden administration is undoubtedly inheriting a less hospitable security environment than what existed when President Obama left office in 2016. On the nuclear front, Russia and China are modernizing their arsenals, developing new weapon capabilities, and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.

But this does not mean the United States should follow suit – or maintain a nuclear arsenal in excess to what is needed for deterrence.

China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal has grown only modestly over the past decade. While the Defense Department projects that China may at least double its arsenal over the next decade, it estimates Beijing’s current arsenal to be in the low-200s. Should China’s nuclear stockpile double, it would still be many times smaller than the current U.S. stockpile of about 3,800 warheads. Relative to the many challenges China poses to the United States and its allies, the Chinese nuclear challenge is not among the most pressing.

With respect to Russia, in 2013, the Obama administration determined the security of the United States and its allies could be maintained while pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons below the level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems as stipulated by New START.

The case for a one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces remains strong. The size of the Russian strategic nuclear force has not changed since then and remains lower than that of the United States. What nefarious opportunities would Moscow be able to exploit in the face of a U.S. nuclear arsenal by 2030 consisting of, for example: 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads on 10 ballistic missile submarines, 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and at least 60 long-range bombers; two low-yield warhead delivery options; and 1,500-2,000 warheads in reserve?

The Biden administration should seek to make further reductions in the U.S. arsenal in concert with Russia, as well as bring China off the arms control sidelines. But it should not give Moscow or Beijing veto power over U.S. force adjustments as further reductions will not compromise U.S. national security. Decisions about force needs must take into account the long-term funding challenges posed by maintaining the U.S. arsenal at its current size and consider the opportunity costs.

After all, planned U.S. spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Moscow and Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.

As Adm. Philip Davidson, the former head of Indo-Pacific Command, put it earlier this year: “The greatest danger to the future of the United States continues to be an erosion of conventional deterrence.” How does cutting attack submarines to pay for cost overruns at the NNSA address this greatest danger? How does replacing conventional sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines with a planned fleet of new nuclear cruise missiles address this greatest danger?

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans won’t save money.

Response: Supporters of the current modernization approach claim that the only choice is to proceed full steam ahead with the status quo or allow the U.S. nuclear arsenal to rust into obsolescence. This is a false choice. Adjusting long-standing and more recently adopted nuclear planning assumptions would enable changes to the current nuclear modernization effort and could produce scores of billions of dollars in savings to redirect to higher priority national security needs.

Of course, pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending, as a significant portion of the overall cost of nuclear weapons remains fixed. That said, changes to the nuclear replacement program could make it easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise.

For example, reshaping the spending plans consistent with an up to one-third reduction in deployed nuclear warheads could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Claim: The Minuteman III missile system can’t be life extended again.

Response: ICBMs are the least valuable, least essential, and least stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad. What the nation invests to sustain ICBMs should reflect this reality. Spending approximately $100 billion to buy a new ICBM system over the next 10-15 years and billions more on an upgraded ICBM warhead and the production of plutonium pits for the warhead fails to reflect the limited utility of ICBMs.

The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs across five states. Supporters argue that the ICBM force presents an attacker with hundreds of targets on the U.S. homeland and is a hedge against a potential future vulnerability in the sea-based leg of the triad. However, even if one supports these arguments, there are cheaper options than going forward with the ICBM replacement program, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program.

Past independent assessments indicate that it is possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III missiles beyond their planned retirement in the 2030 timeframe, as the Defense Department has done before, by refurbishing the rocket motors and other parts.

In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that deferring the new missile portion of GBSD by two decades, extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles, and proceeding with refurbishment of the system’s command and control infrastructure as planned could save $37 billion (in 2017 dollars) through the late 2030s. The option value of this approach would be significant as the Pentagon seeks to navigate the daunting conventional and nuclear modernization bow wave that is now upon it.

Defense officials have put forward several arguments against extending the Minuteman III based on the program analysis of alternatives conducted in 2014, but all of the arguments merit greater scrutiny.

The Defense Department claims that the price to build and operate a new missile system would be less than the cost to maintain the Minuteman III. But it seems the Pentagon arrived at this conclusion by comparing the total life-cycle cost of the two options through 2075. Since Minuteman III missiles cannot be extended for the full period, the department assumed a new missile eventually would be needed. Might comparing the two options over a shorter period produce a different answer? The CBO’s analysis suggested the answer is yes.

The Pentagon also argues that a new missile is essential to maintain the current force of 400 deployed ICBMs. While true that there eventually will not be enough Minuteman III motors to maintain a force of 400 ICBMs at the current rate of testing, this problem can be solved by reducing the number of deployed missiles to, say, 300. How did 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075 become a sacrosanct requirement for a modernization decision covering half a century? Furthermore, future arms control agreements could result in the need for fewer ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal, and presidents can also change military requirements to call for fewer ICBMs.

In addition, defense officials say that the ICBM leg of the triad requires new capabilities that the Minuteman III cannot provide, such as additional target coverage and the ability to penetrate advancing adversary missile defenses. These are curious claims.

First, what and how many targets are Minuteman III missiles unable to hit? Targets in China or North Korea that would require overflying Russia? Can these targets not be hit by other U.S. nuclear capabilities, notably the best mobile intercontinental-range missile on the planet: the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile?

Regarding the missile defense concern, is this a 2030 problem or a 2075 problem? Are the Russians and Chinese on the verge of unlocking the secret to intercepting scores of hypersonic ICBMs armed with decoys and countermeasures – a secret the United States has been unable to unlock? When the Russians express similar concerns about unconstrained U.S. missile defenses posing a threat to the credibility of their nuclear deterrent, U.S. officials dismiss their concerns as paranoia.

These are questions that need far more compelling answers before proceeding full steam ahead with GBSD. There is no evidence the Pentagon has studied the extension option across a wider range of parameters than those considered in 2014. Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, conceded in April that the Pentagon “may be able to chart,” a life extension of the Minuteman III, “but there is an enormous amount of detail that has to go into that.” The Pentagon appears to have no choice but to consider alternatives. According to the GAO, GBSD “program schedule delays are likely.”

Might continuing to rely on the Minuteman III system beyond the 2030s entail some technical risk? Yes. Would it be preferable to replace the aging Minuteman III supporting infrastructure, which in many cases relies on parts that are no longer made, in one fell swoop rather than via incremental upgrades? Probably. Would a common configuration for all launch facilities, which GBSD would provide, make maintenance easier? Yes. Would new missiles built to accommodate future technology upgrades be easier to maintain in the long run? Yes.

But while building a new ICBM system might be preferable, it is not essential. Not given the limited utility of ICBMs. Not given the enormous cost of the GBSD program. Not given the availability of the extension and the incremental upgrade option. Not given other pressing priorities amid a flat defense budget. And not given that future arms control agreements could reduce U.S. nuclear forces.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would undermine the assurance of allies amid allied concern about the threats posed by Russia and China and the strength of the credibility of the U.S. commitment to their security.

Response: The Trump administration attempted to buttress extended deterrence with new nuclear capabilities and more ambiguous language about when it might consider the use of nuclear weapons. These changes do not appear to have assured allies, which suggests that the assurance challenge is more of a political “software” than a military “hardware” problem. Moreover, the most proximate threat Russia and China pose to allies comes from non-nuclear and asymmetric “grey-zone” capabilities that are harder to deter and more likely to lead to conflict escalation. Improving conventional deterrence and alliance cohesion would be more appropriate for this problem than greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

The United States can continue to assure its allies and partners as it reduces the role of nuclear weapons in its strategy, maintains second-to-none conventional military forces, and, most importantly, strengthens political relationships through reaffirmations of the value of alliances, stronger economic and cultural ties, and stepped-up dialogue that tie the United States more closely to the security of its allies.

As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Elaine Bunn recently put it:

“The precise make up...of the nuclear force [is] not likely to have the greatest impact on allies’ views of extended nuclear deterrence. That's about the overall relationship, the peacetime consultations, the crisis management exercises. It’s about that whole web of interactions that we have with allies. And so as long as there’s a baseline of an effective nuclear arsenal, I think if we are confident in our nuclear deterrence capabilities then with right consultation allies will be too.”

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would reduce U.S. leverage to achieve new arms control agreements.

Response: First, a close examination of the history of U.S.-Russian arms control raises doubts about the strength of the link between increased U.S. spending on nuclear weapons and arms control success. For example, the U.S. and NATO decision to field new ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s is often cited as being essential to convincing Moscow to agree to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty prohibiting such weapons. But the actual fielding of the new weapons beginning in 1983 prompted Moscow to walk out of arms control talks. The talks did not resume until 1985 following the major political change in the Soviet Union that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to leader.

Second, even if the modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce an appreciable number of new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest. Third, the Trump administration’s repeated threats to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal did not force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands for a new arms control agreement.

Fourth, an up to one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces would still leave the United States with ample nuclear capability with which to trade as part of new arms control arrangements with Russia (or in the future China). Even after such a reduction, the United States would retain rough parity with Russia in the number of strategic delivery systems and warheads. Moreover, while past strategic nuclear arms control agreements have included equal ceilings on strategic forces, some agreements have included ranges for the ceilings.

Fifth, Moscow has identified constraints on U.S. non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts, especially cuts to Russia’s new “novel” strategic range delivery systems and large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads. The success or failure new arms control talks will rise or fall in large part based on how these issues are addressed, not whether, for instance, the United States builds a new ICBM.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research associate

Description: 

Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast. Here are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 

Biden’s North Korea Policy Review: Toward a More Effective Strategy

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Volume 13, Issue 2, April 13, 2021

When former President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the outgoing Obama administration warned that North Korea's nuclear program posed one of the most significant security challenges facing the United States. Four years later, the threat has grown.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump at their 2019 summit in Hanoi. Two decades of diplomacy, ranging from multilateral negotiations to high-level personal talks, have failed to meaningfully curb North Korea's nuclear weapons development. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)Trump’s approach toward North Korea got off to a rough start with exchanges of fiery rhetoric and military threats, followed by high-profile summits that failed to produce lasting results or an effective negotiating process for denuclearization and peace-building on the Korean peninsula. In the absence of meaningful diplomatic progress, North Korea has continued to enhance its nuclear and missile arsenals and it remains one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous proliferation challenges.

During his presidential campaign, President Joe Biden criticized Trump’s approach to diplomacy, including his decision to meet directly with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, and promised to engage in “principled diplomacy” and “to offer an alternative vision for a non-nuclear future to Kim and the people of North Korea.”

Since taking office January 20, the new administration has been conducting a full review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. To date, key officials have offered few details about their strategy beyond reiterating that denuclearization will remain the end goal and that the United States intends to work closely with allies.

Photo: Mark Makela/Getty ImagesThe administration’s North Korea policy review is a critical opportunity to forge a more effective U.S. approach toward the long-running effort to halt and reverse North Korea’s nuclear progress and reduce the risks of a major conflict. The Biden administration’s policy should take into account the positive and negative lessons from the Trump era as the United States seeks to work with regional allies and the international community to move closer to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Building on the twin goals of denuclearization and peace established by Trump and Kim, Biden should adopt a more pragmatic, step-for-step approach that involves concrete actions on denuclearization in exchange for corresponding measures that address regional security dynamics and sanctions relief for North Korea.

North Korea’s Advancing Nuclear Weapons Program

During the first year of Trump’s presidency, North Korea accelerated its long-range missile testing, introducing three new systems: the Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) tested six times (three tests failed), the Hwasong-14, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), tested twice, and the Hwasong-15, an ICBM tested once. The Hwasong-15 is powerful enough to deliver a nuclear warhead to the entirety of the continental United States, although the accuracy, reliability, and survivability of the warhead during reentry remain questionable after just one test.

North Korea also tested its largest yield warhead—likely a two-stage hydrogen bomb—in September 2017. Since then, North Korea has not conducted any nuclear tests and did take steps as part of its diplomatic overture to the United States to destroy testing tunnels at the Punggye-ri test site in 2018. It is not clear if, or how quickly, North Korea could rebuild that nuclear test site, or if another exists.

There is considerable uncertainty about the size of North Korea’s stockpile of fissile material, but it has likely grown over the past four years. In 2017, North Korea's stockpile was estimated to include 20-40 kilograms of separated plutonium and about 250-500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), according to Stanford physicist Sig Hecker, who visited North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon in 2010. Leaked U.S. and South Korean assessments put the HEU stockpile close to 750 kilograms in 2017. According to a 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, North Korea’s stockpile of weapons-usable material is enough for up to 60 warheads but Pyongyang has likely only assembled around 20-30 nuclear devices. Satellite imagery suggests continued activity at the uranium enrichment facility and intermittent operations the five-megawatt reactor during the past several years, which was used to produce plutonium for the country’s nuclear weapons, at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, suggesting that North Korea continues to produce fissile material. 

Following a spate of testing and increased U.S.-North Korea tensions in 2017, Kim claimed in his 2018 New Year’s address that North Korea’s nuclear forces are “capable of thwarting and countering any nuclear threats from the United States” and announced that North Korea would mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for deployment. He also opened the door for diplomacy with South Korea and later the United States—perhaps assessing that recent long-range missile tests would give him greater leverage in negotiations.

As part of the diplomatic overture, Kim declared an official testing moratorium for long-range missiles and nuclear explosive devices from April 2018. While that moratorium ended in December 2020, the country has not since tested any nuclear devices or long-range systems. North Korea resumed short-range ballistic missile testing in May 2020, after talks with the United States appeared to stall.

Since then, Pyongyang has introduced and tested several new short-range ballistic missiles. North Korea also displayed a new ICBM during an October 2020 parade that is larger than the Hwasong-15 and introduced two new ballistic missiles likely designed for a submarine, one during the October 2020 parade and one in January 2021. Kim also said in December 2020 that the country intends to pursue tactical nuclear weapons, indicating that North Korea will continue refining and developing new nuclear capabilities to meet the perceived security threats.

Lessons Learned from Trump-Kim Diplomacy

While North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs expanded significantly during the Trump presidency, the diplomatic exchanges between Trump and Kim offer critical insights into North Korea’s approach to negotiations and what the country may be willing to put on the table in future talks.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they sit down with their respective delegations for the U.S.-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore, June 12, 2018.  (Photo:  Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)During his time in office, Trump met with Kim three times: first in Singapore in June 2018, then in Hanoi in February 2019, and briefly at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in June 2020. Although tension eased and North Korea has refrained from further long-range ballistic missile flight testing and nuclear testing since 2018, these summits, and the intermittent rounds of working-level talks between the leader-to-leader meetings, did not yield any sustained progress toward achieving the goals of denuclearization and peacebuilding on the peninsula. The United States did, however, gain further insights into North Korea’s negotiating position that should be useful for future diplomatic efforts.

During the first summit, Trump and Kim signed a four-point Joint Statement, whereby the United States and North Korea agreed to establish new bilateral relations, build a “lasting and stable” peace regime, work toward complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and recover the remains of soldiers missing in action. Trump also unilaterally announced additional commitments in a news conference that day, including the cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

While the Singapore summit established the broad parameters and goals of the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic negotiations, it soon became apparent that Washington and Pyongyang preferred different processes to make progress. North Korea expressed a preference for a step-by-step approach, whereas the Trump administration appeared most focused on denuclearization and wanted North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program before any sanctions were lifted. The two parties also did not share the same understanding of the agreed-upon goals, including what constitutes denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The differing interpretations over the processes and goals were compounded by mixed messaging and failure on both sides to sufficiently empower their negotiating teams. Despite the lack of progress and concrete action, Trump and Kim met for their second summit in Hanoi with cautious expectations for progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

In what appeared to have been a shift in the U.S. position, Steve Beigun, former deputy secretary of state and the U.S. special representative for North Korea, stated ahead of the second summit that the United States was prepared to move step-by-step with North Korea toward denuclearization while promoting peace on the peninsula.

Despite that shift, the Hanoi summit ended early and without agreement on subsequent steps. In a debrief of the meeting, Trump and Pompeo shared that the two sides had made progress, but said Trump rejected Kim’s call for sanctions to be entirely lifted in exchange for partial denuclearization. Pompeo remarked that Kim was “unprepared” to do more.

Countering the U.S. account of the meeting, North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho stated that North Korea had requested the partial removal of sanctions in exchange for a permanent halt of nuclear and ballistic missile testing and the full, verifiable, dismantlement of facilities at North Korea’s primary Yongbyon nuclear complex. Trump reportedly demanded “one more thing” atop North Korea’s proposal, which some have speculated could have been a facility outside of Yongbyon that is part of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.

In April, Trump remarked that while he preferred a “big deal” with North Korea to “get rid of the nuclear weapons,” the door for “various small deals” remained open. Kim told the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly April 12 that he would be willing to meet with Trump “one more time” if Washington proposed the summit, but said the United States would have to have the “right stance” and “methodology.” He called for Trump to “lay down unilateral requirements and seek constructive solutions.”

Trump and Kim met briefly one final time in June 2019 at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and agreed to restart working-level negotiations. Following that meeting, in September 2019, North Korea’s First Vice Minister Choe Son Hui issued a statement suggesting that North Korea was interested in continuing talks, provided that the United States offered “a proposal geared to the interests of the DPRK and the U.S.” Trump remarked shortly thereafter that he was open to a “new method” for talks with North Korea, suggesting a softening of the U.S. stance toward sanctions relief.

Working-level talks began in October 2019 in Stockholm, Sweden, and ended shortly thereafter. Ahead of the meeting, North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil praised Trump for taking a more flexible approach and suggested that “second thought” be given to the possibility of a “step by step solution starting with the things feasible first while building trust in each other,” likely referring to North Korea’s preference for an incremental approach that exchanges steps on denuclearization for actions by the United States to lift sanctions and address Pyongyang’s security concerns. After talks commenced, however, he said the U.S. came with “empty-handed” proposals that “greatly disappointed [the North Korean delegation] and sapped our appetite for negotiations.”

Trump administration reportedly offered North Korea time-bound, limited sanctions relief in exchange for concrete, verifiable steps to halt activities at Yongbyon during the meeting, but talks fell apart on the second day and North Korea did not accept the invitation to resume negotiations. Kim said the U.S. position demonstrated the United States’ unwillingness to “solve the issue”

Nearly two years of off-and-on summit diplomacy between the United States and North Korea were ultimately unsuccessful in leading to concrete action to advance the goals agreed to in Singapore. Disagreements over sequencing, particularly if and when sanctions relief should be offered, and the scope of each sides’ respective actions could not be resolved at the leader-level summits.

The Trump-Kim diplomatic process also failed because the two sides did not establish and maintaining a regular dialogue between high-level meetings. Such working-level engagement provides a greater opportunity to share and test concrete proposals and to pave the way for leadership-level summits to produce more tangible outcomes.

Consistent working-level talks are also necessary to build trust and rapport between negotiating parties. Working-level negotiating teams must also have the support from leadership to be effective, but critical mixed messages from Trump and other senior administration officials, including his National Security Advisor John Bolton, about the goals of the negotiations undercut the credibility of working-level negotiators, like Steve Beigun. On the North Korean side, Kim Jong-un did not appear to empower the negotiating team to discuss in any level of detail the country’s nuclear program slowed preparation for the Hanoi meeting.

Recommendations for a More Effective U.S. Policy

The North Korea policy review that the Biden administration is undertaking is not simply a new U.S. administration’s opportunity to set the stage for future talks and signal to Pyongyang the U.S. approach for the next four years—it is much more. Given that North Korea may be on the cusp of significant advancements in its capability to deliver nuclear weapons using a variety of short- and long-range ballistic missiles, the next four years may be the last best chance to freeze and begin to roll back its growing nuclear capabilities and the threat they pose to regional and international security.

The mixed results of the United States’ policies toward North Korea throughout the Obama and Trump administrations offer four sets of key lessons for reshaping the approach under Joe Biden in ways that produce more meaningful and lasting outcomes.

1. The Limits of Sanctions

Sanctions have played a significant role in Biden’s predecessors’ North Korea policy. Former Presidents Trump, Barack Obama, and George Bush have all used sanctions to try to deny North Korea of the materials and funds necessary to pursue its nuclear and missile programs and to punish Pyongyang for violating its international nonproliferation obligations. While sanctions will likely remain a part of U.S. and United Nations Security Council policy toward North Korea, they are but one tool in a broader strategy.

North Korea has demonstrated a considerable tolerance for economic pain and skill in evading sanctions. In recent years, North Korea has become increasingly more adept and creative in its efforts to sidestep sanctions and it has shown that it is unwilling to make unilateral concessions in response to tougher U.S. or UN sanctions.

Furthermore, enforcement and implementation of UN and U.S. sanctions measures have been spotty, especially after Trump prematurely declared that he had achieved success in erasing the North Korean threat following his first summit with Kim Jong-un.

As a result, Washington cannot depend on sanctions pressure alone to push Kim to the negotiating table, especially in the absence of stronger support from regional allies, particularly China, which is North Korea’s largest remaining trading partner.

The Biden administration is unlikely to lift any sanctions absent significant moves from North Korea that roll back its nuclear program, but the North Korea policy review could signal to Pyongyang that there is a credible offramp from sanctions through concrete steps to halt, reverse, and eventually dismantle key nuclear and missile capabilities. This could include partial relief early in the process in exchange for concrete actions from North Korea. The Biden administration’s North Korea policy review should also consider how to better implement humanitarian exemptions for sanctions and support inter-Korean projects.

2. Reaffirming the Goals of the Singapore Summit

The United States’ diplomatic strategy should include reaffirming the objectives of the 2018 Singapore Summit joint statement and indicating clearly that the United States will engage in meaningful talks toward achieving those objectives without preconditions.

The Singapore goals envision a transformed relationship between the United States and North Korea that includes “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Given the role that nuclear weapons play in North Korea’s security calculus, transforming the U.S.-North Korea relationship and the security environment will be critical for moving toward denuclearization.

The Singapore summit declaration may also be North Korea’s preferred starting point. For Kim, the Singapore meeting was a considerable political achievement. Additionally, North Korea has long viewed denuclearization as encompassing the entire peninsula and including elements of the U.S. extended deterrence over North Korea. The Singapore summit declaration recognizes that regional security and stability directly impact the path to denuclearize and folds in addressing Pyongyang’s security concerns as part of a more holistic set of negotiations.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration has already stoked some confusion by calling for “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and “denuclearization of North Korea” interchangeably. This risks sending the wrong message to Pyongyang about U.S. intentions, as the denuclearization of North Korea suggests that the Biden administration is focused on dismantling the country’s nuclear weapons program and not taking into account Pyongyang’s understanding of the necessary conditions for denuclearization. Hopefully, once the policy review is completed, the Biden administration will demonstrate more consistent messaging.

Some experts favor abandoning the goal of denuclearization, arguing that North Korea does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons, and instead advocate for pursuing an arms control-like strategy that reduces risk and preventsfurther qualitative and quantitative advances in the country’s warheads and nuclear-capable missile designs.

The arms control versus denuclearization debate, however, sets up a false choice. U.S. policy can retain denuclearization as a long-term goal while pursuing arms control-like agreements that build toward verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Retaining denuclearization as the long-term goal is important for both North Korea-specific policy purposes and reinforcing a nuclear nonproliferation regime writ large.

This does not mean, however, that the United States should pursue a comprehensive denuclearization agreement at the onset. A series of smaller deals that prioritize reducing risk and preventing North Korea from further refining and developing its nuclear and missile programs will lead toward denuclearization while building confidence in the process and contributing to stability in the region.

3. A Reciprocal Step-by-Step Approach

The Biden administration should also make clear that the United States will pursue a reciprocal, step-by-step diplomatic strategy that rewards concrete actions toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula with sanctions relief and mutual confidence-building measures that reduce the risk of conflict and address North Korea’s security concerns.

There is value in working in phases rather than trying to negotiate a comprehensive agreement risks the talks ending without any concrete actions that reduce nuclear risk and increase stability in the region.

Overall, the essence and strength of this step-by-step approach is the flexible choreography and yet firm direction toward a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous Korean peninsula that not only deals with North Korean nuclear and missile production but also addresses North Korea’s security concerns. A step-by-step process also stands a better chance for maintaining continuity and momentum between changing administrations, whereas if negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive deal, talks may falter in the transition to a new administration.

There are reasons to believe that this approach will still be amenable  to North Korea as Kim Myong Gil, the chief delegate of the North Korea-U.S. bilateral relations, said in September 2019 that the “[step-by-step solution] is something to give a second thought” and the preference toward an action-for-action approach to advance the goals of the Singapore declaration was clearly stated during the summits in Trump’s presidency.

Further, this step-by-step policy approach may garner more support from China—which the Biden administration has indicated it wants to encourage— as it aligns with Beijing’s approach and interests. China and North Korea released a joint statement March 22 calling for such a process.

As a first step, the Biden administration could explore an agreement based on the broad outlines of the proposal that North Korea put on the table in Hanoi: the verified dismantlement of Yongbyon and a cessation of nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing in exchange for partial UN sanctions relief. Dismantlement of Yongbyon would be a significant step toward denuclearization that prevents North Korea from producing further plutonium for nuclear weapons, as well as tritium, which can be used to boost the explosive yield of two-stage nuclear bombs. Partial UN sanctions relief could include putting in place time-bound caps for trade in certain sectors that would offer meaningful relief to North Korea, but snap back into place if the talks become stalled or if Pyongyang does not deliver on its denuclearization commitments.

There are several other actions—both larger and smaller—that the United States could pursue as a meaningful, concrete first step that would reduce risk and prevent further qualitative and/or quantitative advancements to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. These could include:

  • halting of fissile material production, which can be verified using remote monitoring technologies;
  • reinstating North Korea nuclear and long-range ballistic missile test moratoriums, and expanding it to include medium-range systems and rocket motors;
  • halting the production of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles;
  • verifying the closure of testing sites like the Punggye-ri; and
  • securing North Korean signature of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In response, United States, in coordination with allies and members of the UN Security Council, can take actions to address North Korea’s trade and security concerns, scaled to match Pyongyang’s actions. These include:

  • providing partial sanctions relief, including measures in United Nations Security Council resolutions,
  • modifying joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises so they do not involve force movements that appear to be part of preparations for a rapid strike at North Korean leadership targets,
  • establishing a joint statement declaring an end to the Korean War and/or initiating discussions on the negotiations of a formal peace treaty,
  • resuming inter-Korean trade and cultural exchange projects which can improve inter-Korean trade, and
  • providing assurances that the United States will not threaten or conduct a nuclear strike on North Korea,

Given that North Korea views its nuclear arsenal as integral to its security, addressing the regional threat environment should be an integral part of the reciprocal actions the United States puts on the table, alongside sanctions relief, in exchange for verifiable actions toward denuclearization.

North Korea has signaled on many occasions that it views certain exercises as provocative. A spokesman for North Korea’s State Affairs Commission pointed Nov. 13, 2019, to routine military training exercises as a factor in “the repeating vicious circle of the DPRK-U.S. relations.” Modifying US-South Korean joint exercises and pursuing a formal peace treaty would reduce tensions and begin addressing the security concerns that underpin North Korea’s reliance on nuclear weapons.

Bottom Line

While Biden faces an array of complex foreign and domestic challenges, early proactive outreach to North Korea must be a priority. While Kim may not yet be ready to engage in talks, particularly while the Covid-19 pandemic continues, the United States must continue to send the message that diplomacy without preconditions is on the table and that Washington is ready to provide meaningful reciprocal actions in exchange for concrete steps to reduce nuclear risk.—SANG-MIN KIM, Scoville Peace Fellow, and JULIA MASTERSON, research associate

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While President Joe Biden faces an array of complex foreign and domestic challenges, early proactive outreach to North Korea must be a priority.

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Restoring the Nuclear Deal with Iran Benefits U.S. Nonproliferation Priorities

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Volume 13, Issue 1, March 15, 2021

Iran has systematically breached key limits imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced in May 2019 that Tehran would reduce compliance with the accord. Iran’s decision to violate the multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was a direct response to former President Donald Trump’s decision a year earlier to withdraw from the accord and reimpose sanctions in violation of U.S. obligations.

Iran’s nuclear program does not currently pose an immediate proliferation risk and there is no indication from U.S. intelligence that Iran has resumed weaponization-related activities, but its breaches are becoming increasingly more serious and difficult—if not impossible—to fully reverse.

While these breaches are troubling, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has gone to great lengths to keep the door open to restore full implementation of the nuclear deal and reverse Iran’s violations, if the United States lifts sanctions in compliance with its obligations under the accord.

Time is short, however, as both the Biden and Rouhani administrations face considerable domestic pressure opposing restoration of the accord. Neither wants to be perceived as making the first move or making a unilateral concession.

President Joe Biden’s failure to take early action to send a signal of U.S. good faith intentions also appears to have spurred debate in Tehran over whether or not he is serious about his stated approach of “compliance for compliance” to restore the nuclear deal, or if he intends to try and renegotiate the terms of the agreement.

Biden faces pressure from policymakers, particularly opponents of the JCPOA in Congress, to use the Trump administration’s sanctions to leverage additional concessions from Iran on a range of issues. This rhetoric further reinforces doubts in Tehran about Biden’s intentions to restore the deal. However, the idea that the Trump administration’s sanctions have created viable leverage to pressure Iran to make further concessions fails to take into account that U.S. credibility was severely diminished by Trump’s reimposition of sanctions in violation of the deal. There is little support for reimposed U.S. sanctions, which are perceived as jeopardizing an agreement that advanced global nonproliferation interests, and Iran has no interest in new negotiations until the nuclear deal is restored.

If the JCPOA collapses and Iran continues to ratchet up its nuclear activities, some U.S. allies and partners may join a U.S. pressure campaign, but the Biden administration would be hard-pressed to reconstitute the level of international support seen before the negotiations on the JCPOA. Russia and China in particular would be unlikely to support a pressure-based approach after Trump’s treatment of the nuclear deal, barring a clear indication that Iran intended to pursue nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Iran can also ratchet up its nuclear activities far more quickly than the United States could attempt to restore international support for sanctions and diplomatic isolation, giving Tehran its own leverage.

A quick, complete compliance-for-compliance restoration of the JCPOA remains the best option to roll back Iran’s nuclear program, create the time and space for future negotiations on a range of issues, and restore U.S. credibility.

The EU, as the convenor of the negotiations on the JCPOA, is the logical choice to coordinate steps by both sides to resume full implementation of their JCPOA obligations and appears willing to take on that role. Concrete action by the United States to support its stated preference for returning to the deal may help pave the way for an EU-led approach, but with increasingly serious violations of the JCPOA on the horizon and Iran’s presidential elections in June, time is short. It may behoove the EU to present a proposal of its own detailing the necessary reciprocal steps for the United States and Iran to meet their JCPOA obligations.

Failure to restore the deal risks Tehran taking further steps that increase the risk posed by its nuclear program and igniting a destabilizing nuclear competition in the region, both of which would set back U.S security interests and international nonproliferation priorities.

Maximum Pressure Triggered Nuclear Breaches

Under the JCPOA Iran is subject to stringent limitations on its nuclear program and intrusive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, the P5+1 (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany, the EU, and, formerly, the United States) committed to waiving sanctions imposed on Iran. The United Nations Security Council also endorsed the deal in Resolution 2231 (2015), which lifted certain UN sanctions on Iran and levied restrictions on Iranian conventional arms and ballistic missile transfers.

Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018— despite acknowledging Iran’s compliance with the multilateral agreement and over the objections of key U.S. allies. Trump also ordered the reimposition of sanctions that had been lifted or waived under the JCPOA, violating U.S. obligations under the accord. From May 2018 until Trump left office in Jan. 2021, the administration continued to aggressively deny Iran any benefit of remaining in compliance with the nuclear deal and actively opposed efforts by the remaining parties to the deal to engage in legitimate trade with Iran and complete cooperative nuclear projects—even those that benefited U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

The failure of the remaining parties to the JCPOA to deliver on sanctions relief in the year after U.S. withdrawal drove Rouhani to announce in May 2019 that Iran would begin violating the JCPOA. He said Iran would continue to ratchet up its nuclear activities until sanctions relief in oil sales, banking transactions, and other areas of commerce were restored.

For nearly a year following Rouhani’s May 2019 announcement, Iran systematically announced new breaches to the JCPOA’s limits on uranium enrichment, research and development on advanced centrifuges, and stockpile size. Those breaches were carefully calibrated, overseen by IAEA inspectors, and were largely reversible, supporting Rouhani’s assertion that all JCPOA violations taken by Iran are about pressuring parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief and not intended to collapse the deal or impede a full restoration of the deal’s limits down the road.

In Dec. 2020, the Iranian parliament and Guardian Council approved a bill calling on the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to significantly ramp up certain nuclear activities in violation of the deal. That law, hastened by the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, went into effect Dec. 23. The actions required by the nuclear law, some of which have already begun, pose a more serious risk to the JCPOA. The new law, for instance, requires Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its uranium enrichment program, such as boosting enrichment levels to 20 percent uranium-235—a purity Iran had not reached since 2013 when Tehran agreed to cap enrichment amid JCPOA negotiations. The law also includes new breaches, including suspending more intrusive monitoring activities and beginning the production of uranium metal, which would be more difficult to reverse.

To date, between the breaches announced in 2019 and steps taken in line with the Dec. 2020 legislation Iran has:

  1. Breached stockpile limits of 300 kilograms of uranium gas and 130 metric tons of heavy water;
  2. Enriched uranium above the 3.67 percent uranium-235 limit set by the deal;
  3. Operated advanced centrifuges in excess of the JCPOA’s limits and used certain models to produce enriched uranium in violation of the accord;
  4. Resumed enrichment at the Fordow facility in violation of the deal;
  5. Abandoned operational restrictions on its uranium enrichment program;
  6. Suspended the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and JCPOA-specific monitoring measures (a special arrangement with the IAEA is in place); and
  7. Produced gram quantities of natural uranium metal and begun work on a uranium metal production plant (the plant is not yet operational).

(For more information on the status of Iran’s violations of the JCPOA see “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action At A Glance.”)

Heightened but Manageable Proliferation Risk—For Now

In total, Iran’s violations have increased the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s activities to ratchet up its uranium enrichment capacity have reduced the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for one bomb from about 12 months (when the nuclear deal is fully implemented) to about three months, as of Feb. 2021. That breakout time will continue to shorten if Iran installs and brings online advanced centrifuges, as required by the 2020 nuclear law, and its stockpile of uranium enriched up to 20 percent continues to grow.

The Dec. 2020 nuclear law requirements stipulating that Iran stockpile uranium enriched to 20 percent and install and operate advanced centrifuges, in particular, accelerate the decrease in breakout. Iran’s advanced machines are much more efficient than the IR-1s to which Iran is limited to using under the JCPOA. The IR-2m centrifuge is estimated to be about three to four times more efficient than the IR-1 and the IR-6 an estimated seven to eight times more efficient. In total, if Iran operates 1,000 IR-2s (about half of which are already enriching) and 1,000 IR-6s (as required by the end of 2021 under the law), in addition to the 6,104 IR-1s already enriching uranium, Iran’s enrichment capacity will increase by about threefold.

Enriching to 20 percent also increases proliferation risk, as that level constitutes about 90 percent of the work necessary to enrich to weapons-grade (above 90 percent uranium-235). Once Iran has accumulated enough 20 percent enriched gas for a bomb, about 250 kilograms (or about 170 kilograms by weight), it could likely produce what is known as a significant quantity of nuclear material (one bomb’s worth, or 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to greater than 90 percent) in less than two months given its current enrichment capacity. As of mid-February, Iran had about 17 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent (by weight) and it intends to produce 120 kilograms (by weight) during 2021, suggesting that Iran will not reach a bomb’s worth of 20 percent material before the end of the year at the current pace.

The decrease in breakout time is a concern. But even if Iran decided to pursue nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that Iran would withdraw from the JCPOA and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to produce just one bomb, particularly given that Tehran has never tested a nuclear device. Any such move would be met by swift international condemnation and the reimposition of sanctions. Iran has uranium enriched to less than 5 percent that, when enriched to weapons-grade, would be enough for a second bomb, but it would take another two to three months. Then Iran would need to covert and weaponize the material—a process that could take another year to 18 months.

The 12-month breakout time can be restored relatively quickly by reversing Iran’s breaches of the uranium enrichment limits—a process that could itself likely be accomplished in under three months with significant political will. Enriched uranium above the 300-kilogram stockpile limit can be quickly shipped out or blended down to natural levels, excess machines dismantled and stored, enrichment halted at Fordow, and enrichment levels dialed back to 3.67 percent uranium-235. Knowledge gained by operating advanced centrifuges is not reversible, but the excess machines themselves will be dismantled and stored under IAEA seal, so Iran will not be able to access them without inspectors knowing. Furthermore, the efficiency of the advanced machines can be taken into account in calculating and determining an acceptable breakout time in follow-up negotiations.

Work on uranium metal is more problematic. The JCPOA bans uranium metal production for 15 years because of its applicability to weapons development. While Iran claims it is pursuing uranium metal for reactor fuel, the knowledge gained would still be relevant to weaponization processes.

Though it is widely suspected that Iran experimented with uranium metal as part of its pre-2003 nuclear weapons program, it does not appear to have significant experience with large-scale production and much of the experimentation appears to have been done with surrogate metals. Restoring the JCPOA’s limits before Iran gains that valuable and irreversible expertise with metal production would benefit long-term U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

The risk posed by these breaches is further amplified by Iran’s decision to suspend the more intrusive monitoring mechanisms required by the JCPOA, including the additional protocol to its safeguards agreement. Inspectors will still be in place and have access to sites where Iran produces and stores its nuclear material as part of Iran’s legally required safeguards agreement under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

However, the suspension of the more intrusive measures could create gaps in the IAEA’s understanding of Iran’s nuclear program, as the additional protocol gives inspectors regular access to all facilities that support the nuclear program and complimentary access to follow up on concerns about undeclared nuclear activities. Decreased access will make it more difficult to monitor Iran’s breaches of the deal and likely increase speculation about illicit nuclear activities.

Iran and the IAEA did agree to a special three-month technical arrangement Feb. 21—two days before Iran’s suspension of the measures—that will allow certain agency monitoring beyond Iran’s comprehensive safeguards agreement. Iran also committed to collect certain information relevant to the additional protocol—including tapes of continuous surveillance activities—and hand that information over to the IAEA upon sanctions relief.

Ideally, the hand-over of information will allow for inspectors to reconstruct Iran’s nuclear program during the three-month period and will mitigate any speculation of illicit activities in the absence of stringent IAEA oversight. However, the special arrangement is not a viable solution in the long term, particularly if any concerns emerge about illicit activities and materials, but it does manage the risk and buy time for diplomatic action to restore the JCPOA.

Restoring Mutual Compliance with the 2015 Nuclear Deal

Although Iran’s systematic breaches of JCPOA limits constitute serious violations of the agreement, the deal itself has proven to be an effective, verifiable arrangement when it is fully implemented. It is possible to restore the deal’s nonproliferation benefits—but only if the parties to the deal act swiftly to fully implement the JCPOA’s obligations.

There is no indication at this point that Iran is pursuing or intends to pursue nuclear weapons, but the violations have increased speculation about illicit nuclear activities and worn the patience of the European members of the deal. E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) frustration was manifest in a recent gratuitous attempt to censure Iran for its suspension of the additional protocol during the March meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors. While the E3 concern about the decrease in monitoring is warranted, pursuing the resolution risked the special technical arrangement and the space for Iran, the United States, and the parties to the JCPOA to meet to discuss restoring the accord.

Returning to full implementation of the deal will require coordination by the United States and Iran. Unsurprisingly, while both U.S. President Joe Biden and Rouhani support a restoration of the JCPOA and a mutual return to full compliance, neither wants to be perceived as acting first or unilaterally. Both appear interested in partaking in discussions facilitated by the EU, which the EU appears eager to do, but creating the necessary political conditions for all sides to accept an invitation remains a challenge.

Given that the Trump administration triggered this crisis—namely by reimposing sanctions in violation of the deal— and provoked Iran’s violations of the accord, further signaling by the Biden administration of U.S. good faith could promote an environment conducive to coordinating restoration of the nuclear deal. Biden’s failure to act early upon taking office in Jan. 2021 prompted concern in Tehran that the new U.S. president was not serious about restoring the deal as is, and that he might try to renegotiate it—a position unacceptable to Tehran.

To date, the Biden administration has insisted that it will not grant sanctions relief before talks on restoring full compliance with the deal. But the White House could take steps to signal good faith, such as reinstating waivers for JCPOA-required nonproliferation projects that would help facilitate Iran’s eventual return to compliance and more definitive action in support of humanitarian efforts. Such steps could help restore confidence in Tehran that Biden is serious about restoring the JCPOA and demonstrate that the United States acknowledges Rouhani’s efforts to keep the window open for diplomacy.

Failure to act swiftly risks the JCPOA collapsing. A collapsed JCPOA would have severe implications for regional stability and international security, as Iran’s program would be unrestrained and subject to far less monitoring at a time when the United States faces a significant credibility deficit.

Even in the absence of the accord, it is highly unlikely that Iran would make the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, but restricted IAEA monitoring and no limits on uranium enrichment would raise speculation over covert Iranian nuclear weapons ambitions. This could spur other states in the region to match Iran’s perceived nuclear capabilities or attempt a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—an act that would only set back the program and be more likely to spur Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons to deter future attacks. Dissolution of the JCPOA would also significantly compromise the likelihood of Iran engaging in future nuclear nonproliferation agreements.

It is critical that the Biden administration not miss this window to restore the nonproliferation benefits of the JCPOA and use it as a platform for future diplomatic engagement.—JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy

 

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Iran has breached key limits of the JCPOA since May 2019, gradually increasing the proliferation risk posed by its civilian nuclear program. Taken together, Iran's systematic and provocative violations of the nuclear deal are cause for concern and jeopardize the future of the deal. 

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Time Running Out: Extend New START Now

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Volume 12, Issue 7, October 7, 2020

Four months remain until the last U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control treaty is slated to expire Feb. 5, 2021, and with it the last remaining verifiable limits on the size of the still enormous U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has so far refused Russia’s offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for five years as allowed by the treaty.

Instead, the administration has conditioned consideration of a short-term extension of New START on Russia’s acceptance of a one-sided, 11th hour offer that Russia has rejected. In recent days, the two sides have exchanged additional ideas with U.S. officials claiming some measure of “progress.”

The stakes could not be higher. The untimely death of New START with nothing to replace it would open the door to a costly and dangerous new quantitative U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race.

Barring an October surprise in which President Trump orders a more reasonable approach than what the administration has currently offered to Russia, the fate of the treaty will likely be decided by the presidential election Nov. 3. Former Vice President Joe Biden has expressed support for an extension of New START without conditions.

 

The U.S. August Proposal

Following an August meeting in Vienna with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea sketched out the U.S. proposal for a politically binding framework deal with Russia. The framework, he said Aug. 18, must cover all nuclear warheads, establish a verification regime suitable to that task, and be “extensible” to China in the future.

In addition, Billingslea characterized New START as “a deeply flawed deal negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration” and alleged the agreement has “significant verification deficiencies.” He said President Trump would not agree to extend New START unless these purported deficiencies, including an inadequate number of inspections, are fixed. Billingslea later clarified that even if Russia agrees to the U.S. terms, only a short-term extension, likely no more than a year, is on the table.

“[I]f Russia would like to see that treaty [New START] extended, then it’s really on them to come back to us,” Billingslea said, citing a mandate from Trump. “The ball is now in Russia’s court.”

Trump administration officials insist that the conditions represent a reasonable offer. They note that China’s immediate participation in trilateral arms control talks is no longer a condition for consideration of an extension of New START (though they continue to insist that the framework agreement must specifically mention China and that the next arms control treaty must include China).

Left unsaid is what the administration is willing to put on the table in return for Russia agreeing to the U.S. demands. The answer appears to be that Russia must agree to the U.S. demands for free.

Meanwhile, the administration should not get credit for being mugged by reality and relaxing its insistence on China’s immediate participation in talks. There was never any chance that China would do so, despite Billingslea’s ineffective efforts to embarrass China to the table.

Predictably, Russia has repeatedly poured cold water on the administration’s proposal, calling it “absolutely unrealistic.” Ryabkov reiterated Oct. 1 that the U.S. proposal is “clearly a nonstarter for us.”

In addition to making unrealistic demands, the administration has resorted to wild threats and petty insults in an attempt to coerce and embarrass Russia to the table. Billingslea is now publicly saying that if Russia refuses the unrealistic U.S. terms, “we will be extremely happy to continue…without the START restrictions” and threatened that the United States would immediately begin building up its nuclear arsenal the day after New START expires. He has also threatened to slap additional conditions on the U.S. offer if Russia does not accept it by the November election.

Such an approach has zero chance of success and is far more consistent with running out the clock on New START (and trying to pin the blame on Russia and China) rather than a serious effort to make progress on further arms control.

The Latest Exchanges

Billingslea and Ryabkov met again Oct. 5 in Helsinki. A senior Trump administration official told The Wall Street Journal that “substantial progress” was made at the meeting and that Russia brought “concrete proposals” to the table for the first time. The official added that the framework agreement the sides are discussing would include a politically binding commitment to freeze the total number of warheads possessed by each side and entail a short-term extension of New START.

A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry after the talks said only that “further prospects on the track of bilateral cooperation on arms control” had been discussed. As Billingslea and Ryabkov were meeting in Helsinki, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his belief that New START "is going to die." He said that "The conditions they [the Trump administration] set are absolutely unilateral and do not take into account either our interests or the experience of many decades, when arms control was enforced to everyone’s satisfaction and was welcomed by all countries."

A politically binding warhead freeze could be a useful confidence-building measure as Washington and Moscow engage in what are sure to be complex and lengthy talks on a new nuclear disarmament agreement. However, it remains to be seen what such a freeze would entail, what Russia might seek in return, and whether the Trump administration is open to relaxing its heretofore unacceptable conditions for a deal, especially the demand for changes to the New START verification regime.   

The Case for Extending New START

New START caps the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. It also put into place a verification regime greatly valued by the U.S. military for the insight it affords into the Russian nuclear arsenal.

Article XIV of the treaty allows for an extension “for a period of no more than five years” so long as the U.S. and Russian presidents mutually agree. Members of Congress from both parties and most U.S. allies have expressed support for the treaty’s five-year extension.

The pursuit of a new arms control agreement that captures all types of nuclear warheads and additional nuclear-armed states is a laudable goal. But not if that pursuit comes at the expense of or as a condition for extending New START. New START should be extended for the full five years in order to ensure that the verifiable limits put into place by the treaty do not disappear as talks on a new agreement are pursued. New START is too valuable to allow to expire.

If New START lapses with nothing to replace it, there would be no negotiated limits on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. The end of the treaty would further damage relations with our allies, undermine the fraying health of the global nonproliferation regime, exacerbate an already fraught U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, and provide Washington and Moscow with a greater incentive to make additional costly nuclear force investments.

Below are additional key points about the case for extending New START for five years and the problems with the Trump administration’s proposal for a new framework agreement with Russia.

The U.S. military greatly values and relies upon the verification regime established by New START. Billingslea has argued that the New START verification regime “has significant loopholes in the way verification is physically conducted, which the Russians have been exploiting.” But the U.S. military has raised no such concerns.

New START’s extensive monitoring and verification regime provides essential real-time insights directly into Russian strategic forces and modernization programs. Allowing the treaty to die would deprive us of a vital flow of information about Russia’s strategic forces that cannot be obtained via other means.

Vice Adm. David Kriete, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in July 2019 that “those verification procedures that the U.S. gets to execute all the time provides great insight into Russia’s capabilities, numbers, and all kinds of things associated with their nuclear weapons.” If those procedures disappeared, he said, then “we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps.”

The treaty’s verification regime is more than adequate to monitor Russia’s compliance with the treaty. Indeed, a State Department report published in February reiterated that Russia remains in compliance with the treaty and that the treaty limits and the “verification regime established by the treaty both regulate competition and provide key data, information, and insights regarding Russian strategic nuclear forces.”

Rose Gottemoeller, the chief U.S. negotiator of New START during the Obama administration, recently wrote that New START’s verification setup used what worked in previous treaties and discarded what was no longer necessary and cumbersome and costly to implement. “In the end,” she said, “the United States got what it wanted in the New START verification regime: streamlined inspection procedures at a sufficient level of detail to be effectively implemented.”

There is no evidence that withholding an extension of New START or dangling a short-term extension of the treaty enhances U.S. leverage to push Russia to agree to U.S. demands for a bilateral framework agreement or a new trilateral arms control treaty. The Trump administration believes that Russia is “desperate” to secure an extension of New START. But Russia has said that it will not agree to an extension “at any cost.” Ryabkov said Sept. 21 that the Trump administration needs to give up its preconditions for extension “and then we can start the talks about something, or there’s no deal.”

The administration’s refusal to date to extend the treaty by five years has produced no meaningful leverage. Moreover, assuming Moscow would even agree to multiple short-term extensions totaling less than five years, preparing and posturing for such extensions would distract from the broader talks the administration says it seeks.

A five-year extension would provide the most breathing room to pursue negotiations on a new deal. U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations have in the past been complex and time-consuming, and the Trump administration is proposing an agreement unprecedented in scope. The Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), for example, took place from November 1969 to May 1972. New START was notable for the relatively short time it took to negotiate, but it still took the United States and Russia 10 months.

The Trump administration does not have a successful track record trying to force Russia’s hand on arms control. For instance, the Trump administration’s threats to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty did not bring Russia back into compliance, and the United States officially withdrew from the treaty in August 2019. Likewise, the U.S. announcement in May of its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty has not pressured Russia to address U.S. concerns about Russia’s implementation of the accord. The United States is slated to formally exit the treaty shortly after the election.

The outcome of U.S. efforts to seek new arms control arrangements will succeed or fail based on whether those arrangements comport with the security interests and address the concerns of the parties involved. Neither Russia nor China can be coerced or embarrassed to the negotiating table (and Moscow has said that it will not cave to U.S. pressure to force Beijing to join trilateral arms control talks).

Apart from allowing New START to expire and threatening a nuclear buildup, the Trump administration has refused to detail what the United States is willing to put on the table to incentivize Russia (and China) to agree to the administration’s arms control goals. Any agreement as sweeping and unprecedented as the one proposed by Billingslea will, of course, require mutual concessions by both Washington and Moscow. But as it stands, the politically binding framework proposed by Billingslea demands unilateral concessions from Russia.

In addition to China, Russia has long called for France and the United Kingdom to join the next arms control agreement after New START. Moscow also seeks to capture other factors it deems essential to maintaining strategic stability, such as missile defense, ground-based short- and intermediate-range missiles, space weapons, and hypersonic weapons. As the United States wants an agreement that covers Russia’s unconstrained stockpile of nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons, so does Russia want Washington to remove the estimated 150 U.S. tactical nuclear bombs based in five European countries.

But Billingslea has already dismissed the idea of limits on U.S. missile defense as well as the removal of U.S. tactical weapons in Europe.

There is no national security need to increase the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal above the New START limits, and the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are unprepared to do so anyway. Following Billingslea’s threat that the United States will start increasing the arsenal after New START expires, news reports revealed that the Pentagon has been asked to evaluate how long it would take to execute a buildup. Billingslea does not appear to have consulted the Pentagon before making his threat.

James Anderson, the undersecretary of defense for policy, wrote in July that, “Our intention is to remain within the New Start limits of 700 strategic missiles and bombers and 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.” According to a July 30 report by the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon “is basing its plans on the assumption that New START will be extended, and it currently has no plans to change its force structure.”

The United States has not increased the size of the U.S. deployed nuclear arsenal in decades and doing so would be a major departure from longstanding U.S. policy.

Billingslea’s call for a nuclear buildup follows his outlandish claim earlier this year that the United States can spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in a new arms race. More U.S. spending on nuclear weapons won’t force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands and would be fraught with peril.

The United States is already planning to spend an excessive sum to sustain and upgrade the current arsenal, which is based on the New START limits. As a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office demonstrated, the possibility of unconstrained nuclear competition could create even greater costs that would divert funding from higher priority U.S. national and health security priorities.

Ever-increasing spending on nuclear weapons without an arms control framework that bounds U.S. and Russian nuclear forces is a recipe for a less secure United States. Such an approach also flies in the face of longstanding bipartisan Congressional support for the pursuit of modernization and arms control in tandem.

Extend New START Now

The Trump administration’s approach to arms control with Russia has not been a serious starting point for negotiations on extending or replacing New START.

With little more than four months until New START expires, the best course forward is to immediately extend the treaty for a full five years and then pursue follow-on agreements that address legitimate U.S. and Russian concerns about unconstrained nuclear weapons, the nuclear arsenals of other nuclear-armed states, and non-nuclear weapons and policies that could impact strategic stability.

Extending New START would prolong the limits on Russia’s deployed strategic forces, continue an otherwise unobtainable flow of information about those forces, and provide the necessary foundation from which to seek more far-reaching arms control goals.

The Trump administration’s demand for unilateral concessions from Moscow in exchange for a short-term extension of New START is a recipe for failure and risks setting the United States on the road to an expensive arms race that it can ill afford.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant

Description: 

The stakes could not be higher. The untimely death of New START with nothing to replace it would open the door to a costly and dangerous new quantitative U.S.-Russian nuclear arms race.

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The Limits of Breakout Estimates in Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Program

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Volume 12, Issue 6, August 4, 2020

Over the past year, Iran has taken several troubling steps to breach the limits that were imposed on its nuclear program by the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). While Iran’s violations of the accord appear to be carefully calibrated to create leverage in response to the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the accord and reimposition of sanctions, Iran’s actions have rekindled the debate about how quickly Iran could “breakout,” or produce enough nuclear material for a bomb.

Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi (left), government spokesman Ali Rabiei (center), and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi (right) give a joint press conference in Tehran as Iran prepares to  begin enriching uranium beyond a 3.67 percent cap set by the 2015 landmark nuclear deal, July 7, 2019. (Photo: HAMED MALEKPOUR/AFP via Getty Images)Estimates about the length of time it might take for Tehran to breakout have become synonymous with assessing the risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program. During negotiations on the JCPOA, the breakout time established by the nuclear restrictions imposed by the deal became a key metric by which policymakers, particularly members of Congress, judged the value of the accord. Supporters of the JCPOA highlighted the 12-month breakout achieved by the deal as a measure of success in rolling back the country’s nuclear program and creating a buffer that would give the international community time to respond to any Iranian move to try to produce nuclear weapons. Critics of the nuclear deal decried the accord for ‘only’ achieving a 12- month breakout for the first decade of the accord.

The attractiveness of a breakout estimation from a policy-making perspective is clear—it is a quantitative assessment of a country’s capacity to produce fissile material for a bomb that establishes a time frame for intervention.

While breakout estimates can appear to be a quick and easy metric for assessing a proliferation threat, they can also be misleading and oversimplify the complex technical weaponization process and the political factors that influence the decision to develop nuclear weapons. Breakout is often discussed absent a shared understanding of what the term constitutes and the assumptions that go into the calculation. More importantly, breakout is a measure of technical capacity and capability, not intent. Iran’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons—or not—will be based on an array of political considerations, Tehran’s threat perceptions, and its leaders’ cost-benefit calculations.

Establishing limitations and restrictions that extend a country’s breakout time are important for mitigating proliferation risk. However, pairing the limits established by the JCPOA with a strategy for addressing the factors that impact Tehran's decision-making stands a better chance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran in the long term.

What is Breakout?

“Breakout” commonly refers to the amount of time it would take for a country to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb. Every country has a breakout timeline.

While the amount of fissile material used in nuclear weapons varies considerably, breakout is often estimated using what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refers to as a “significant quantity” of weapons useable material: 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or four kilograms of separated plutonium-239. States that already possess nuclear weapons have developed warheads using less fissile material, but Iran—which has never built or tested a nuclear device—would likely require the IAEA’s estimated significant quantity of fissile material, or more, to account for wastage in the process of manufacturing the weapon.

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In discussions about the Iranian nuclear program, breakout is most frequently used to describe the country’s capacity to produce enough HEU for one weapon using gas centrifuges. Iran has an established uranium enrichment and centrifuge development program that could be more readily reconfigured to produce HEU for nuclear weapons than the plutonium route.

Even before negotiations on the JCPOA, Iran lacked a separation facility to remove plutonium-239 from spent reactor fuel. Additionally, its unfinished heavy-water reactor at Arak, which may have initially been designed as a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons, was years away from completion. Currently, provisions of the deal requiring Iran to modify the Arak reactor to a design that would produce less than a kilogram of weapons-usable plutonium yearly (and even that will be shipped out), and forgo reprocessing for 15 years, serve as a further bulwark against a plutonium route to the bomb.

In determining Iran’s breakout time using its uranium enrichment program, several factors impact the calculation, including the types of centrifuges used for enrichment, the efficiency and configuration of those machines, and the size and enrichment levels of Iran’s existing stockpile of uranium.

Often, breakout estimates are based on worst-case scenarios and they can vary significantly. Variances in breakout estimation can depend on the assumptions made about factors that are not established publicly by IAEA reports on Iran’s nuclear program or other sources of data. For instance, the efficiency of Iran’s first-generation IR-1 centrifuge, known as its “separative work unit (SWU)” capacity, is fairly well established by more than a decade of IAEA reports. The New York Times also reported in 2015 that the United States has a cascade of IR-1 centrifuges that it uses to test its performance assumptions in calculating breakout. Iran’s advanced centrifuges, however, do not have the same public operational history and documentation, making estimates about their efficiency more imprecise. 

Longer or shorter breakout estimates may also be attributed to differing judgments on how quickly Iran could reconfigure its centrifuges to enrich to higher levels, assumptions about how many/few machines will break during that process, the rate at which Iran could install additional centrifuges, and how much material Iran would need to produce to account for wastage in the process.

Fluctuations in Iran’s Breakout

Before implementation of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action, the interim nuclear deal between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) and Iran, Tehran’s breakout time was assessed at about 2-3 months. At that time, Iran had produced and stockpiled about 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium gas—nearly enough that, when further enriched to weapons-grade, could be used to produce enough HEU for a bomb. This stockpile had a significant impact on the breakout estimate because enriching to the 20 percent uranium-235 level constitutes about 90 percent of the effort required to produce 90 percent enriched uranium and would jump-start any weapons effort. At that time, Iran was also operating more than 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges and had produced and stockpiled more than enough uranium gas enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235 that, when further enriched to weapons-grade, would produce enough HEU for a half dozen nuclear weapons.

As a result of the interim Joint Plan of Action, Iran ceased enriching to 20 percent and diluted or converted its stockpile of that material, increasing the breakout time. The JCPOA further limited Iran to 3.67 percent enrichment for 15 years. Additional limitations put in place by the JCPOA included restricting the stockpile size to the equivalent of 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235—not nearly enough for one nuclear weapon—for 15 years and limiting enrichment output to only 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges for 10 years.

In combination, these restrictions on the uranium enrichment program extended the breakout time to about 12 months for the first decade of the agreement, according to the Obama administration. Then-Director for National Intelligence Dan Coats presented a similar assessment in Jan. 2019 when Iran was fully implementing the deal.

Since Iran began taking steps in May 2019 to breach limits set by the accord, the breakout time has slowly decreased. As of June 2020, Iran is now enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent uranium-235 using more than 6,100 IR-1 centrifuges and several hundred advanced machines. Iran has also exceeded the stockpile limit for enriched uranium and possesses 1,088 kilograms of uranium enriched between 2-4.5 percent uranium-235—more than enough to produce a significant quantity of HEU if enriched to weapons-grade.

Given the uncertainties about advanced centrifuge machine performance and variances of enrichment levels within the stockpile, breakout estimates as of the June 2020 IAEA report range from three to six months. If Iran continues to install additional centrifuges or begins enriching to higher levels, the breakout time could decrease further.

Iranian officials have made clear, however, that these steps are not a dash to a bomb and that Tehran will return to compliance with the accord if the other parties to the deal meet their obligations, namely on sanctions relief. Iranian officials have notified the IAEA in advance of its actions to breach the deal and the agency has monitored and reported on the violations. The careful calibration of these transparent steps to gradually decrease breakout and the reversibility of Iran’s actions support the claim by Tehran that this is about pressing the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief. Furthermore, the 2020 State Department report on compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements assessed that Iran is not engaged in activities relevant to nuclear weapons development nor has Tehran made the decision to do so.

This demonstrates one of the limitations of the breakout calculation: Iran’s breakout has significantly decreased over the past year, but the country’s political calculus does not appear to have shifted in favor of building a bomb. As such, despite the shorter breakout window, there is still time to influence Iran’s decision making.

What Else Goes into Making a Bomb?

While breakout typically refers to the time necessary to produce enough fissile material for a bomb, the calculation is often conflated or confused with the total time necessary to build an actual nuclear weapon.

Although the production of fissile material is arguably the most resource-intensive and difficult step in building a bomb, there are several additional technical hurdles, including designing and constructing an explosive device and integrating it into a delivery system (most likely a ballistic missile). When breakout is misconstrued as the time to build a weapon or reference to these steps is omitted, it can artificially inflate the immediacy of the proliferation risk.

To build a bomb, there are several additional time-consuming steps following the production of fissile material. After producing enough HEU gas for a bomb, Iran would need to convert the material into powder form, fabricate the metallic core of the weapon from the powder, assemble other weapons components that had been previously developed or acquired on an independent track, and integrate the weapons package into a delivery vehicle. This process could be more easily hidden and progress would be more difficult to quantify, but there would still be a period of time for intervention.

James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 9, 2016. (Photo:SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)It is likely that if Iran were to produce enough weapons-grade material, the country would be able to build a nuclear weapon. In an unclassified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Iran had a nuclear weapons capability—namely, the country developed the technical competencies to build a bomb—but had not made the political decision to follow through.

James Clapper, director for national intelligence from 2010 to 2017, confirmed during testimony in Feb. 2016 that that assessment still held, noting that U.S. intelligence community does not believe Iran faces any “insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon,” but that there was no indication that Tehran intended to pursue nuclear weapons at this time.

Past verification activities and reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) further support the assessment Iran has retained the technical know-how to adapt a stockpile of HEU for use in a nuclear explosive device. A 2011 IAEA report annex on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program referenced Iran’s attempts to convert HEU compounds into metal and to fabricate HEU metal components into a size suitable for a nuclear weapon. That same report confirms that Iran engaged in the development of a detonator, which can be used to ignite the high explosives that surround a weapon’s fissile core.

Beyond constructing a bomb, states developing nuclear weapons have typically conducted multiple, large-scale nuclear test explosions to perfect their warhead designs, particularly the smaller, lighter, and more efficient designs needed for missiles. Iran has not conducted a nuclear test and any attempt to do so would very likely be detected by existing U.S. national means of intelligence and the International Monitoring System established to verify compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

If Iran chose not to test, Tehran would be staking everything on the perfect performance of one untested system. It is highly improbable that Iran would plan to break out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by building only one nuclear weapon. Calculating timelines based on a one-device scenario, therefore, compounds the misimpression already left by using a breakout definition that falls short of actually building a weapon.

However, if Tehran were to choose to increase the odds of success by planning to build multiple weapons, it would increase the need for fissile material, thus lengthening the breakout timelines and increasing the chances of international detection and blocking actions. The likelihood of detection is further increased by the more intrusive monitoring and verification mechanism put in place by the JCPOA.

Even if Iran were willing to tolerate the large uncertainties deriving from an untested nuclear weapons design, integrating the warhead with a delivery system could add additional uncertainties and further increase the timeframe. Launching a nuclear weapon using a ballistic missile—which the U.S. intelligence community assessed was Iran’s most likely delivery system—requires miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to ensure the size and weight are compatible with the missile’s capabilities. The annex to the 2011 IAEA report indicated that Iran was studying how to pair a warhead with its Shahab ballistic missiles.

Estimates of how quickly Iran could complete a bomb after producing the fissile material differ. The United States does not provide official estimates, but an annual report from the State Department released in June 2020 noted that “Iran is not currently engaged in key activities associated with the design and development of a nuclear weapon.” Former U.S. officials have said the weaponization process could take about a year. Leaked reports of a threat assessment provided to Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in June 2020 concluded that Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon in six months, but it would take the country about two years to build a bomb if Tehran decided to do so.

The difference between the breakout timeline and the total estimated time to build a nuclear bomb highlights a limitation of focusing too narrowly on breakout as the window for intervention. For one, breakout creates the perception that a state must be stopped before producing a significant quantity of HEU or plutonium, which may be used as a justification for a military strike. Military action, however, will only set back Iran’s nuclear program and may end up spurring Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons to deter future strikes.

Furthermore, breakout assesses the time it would take for Iran to concentrate its nuclear capacity to produce enough nuclear material for one weapon. A single nuclear bomb—particularly given that Iran has not tested a nuclear device in the past to verify its design—has limited security value. It is not an effective deterrent and it is unlikely that Iran would want to face the consequences of breakout—increased international pressure and possible military action—for one nuclear weapon based on an untested design.

The Political Factors Related to Breakout

Overreliance on using breakout estimates also creates the impression that Iran will inevitably pursue nuclear weapons at some point and that there is a technical solution to block what is ultimately a political decision shaped by a country’s threat perception. However, given that the U.S. intelligence community has already assessed that Iran has developed a nuclear weapons capability, restrictions can increase the time it would take to build a bomb, but they cannot undo that knowledge. Ultimately, if Tehran decides to build a bomb, the country has the technical competencies to do so.

But, as Clapper testified in 2012, “we judge Iran’s nuclear decision making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.” To that end, pairing a return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal by the United States and Iran with a strategy for active engagement on regional security issues and investment in Iran’s economic development would increase the time it would take to build a bomb while increasing the benefits of compliance. This approach of establishing technical barriers and addressing the factors that impact Tehran’s decision making stands a better chance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran in the long term.

Conclusions

Limiting and restricting Iran’s breakout timeline is a critical component and benefit of the JCPOA. However, policymakers must focus not only on the technical barriers and the robust inspection regime necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons but also on a strategy to address the political factors that influence Iranian decision making on security issues.

A key part of any such strategy involves a mutual return to the JCPOA by the United States and Iran. Doing so would be an important first step toward stabilizing the current situation and preventing a new nuclear crisis in the region. A return to full compliance with the nuclear deal would provide a platform for further negotiations on a long-term framework to address the country’s nuclear program and create space to engage with Iran on other areas of concern, such as regional dynamics and the country’s ballistic missile program.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, with JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant

Description: 

Iran’s recent steps to breach the limits imposed on its nuclear program under the JCPOA have rekindled the debate about how quickly its nuclear program could “breakout,” or produce enough nuclear material for a bomb.

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Congress Should Take the Nuclear Testing Option Off the Table

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Volume 12, Issue 5, July 1, 2020
Updated July 20, 2020

Senior White House officials have reportedly discussed a demonstration nuclear test explosion to try to coerce Russia and China to come to the arms control negotiating table.

On May 22, The Washington Post cited a senior administration official as saying that a nuclear test could strengthen the U.S. negotiating leverage on a possible trilateral arms control deal with Russia and China. The official said the proposal is “very much an ongoing conversation.”

The underground nuclear testing site at Frenchman Flats, Nevada, USA. (Photo: Karen Kasmauski/Science Faction/Corbis)Even if President Donald Trump does not order such a test, the fact that it was even discussed at all merits prompt Congressional action to ensure it is no longer under consideration and to put in place checks and balances on any future proposal to do so.

Making matters worse, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) won approval in a party-line committee vote for his amendment to add $10 million to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021 for a nuclear test explosion.

As Vice President Joe Biden said May 28, resuming nuclear weapons "testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous. We have not tested a device since 1992; we don’t need to do so now.”

This week, July 20, the House will consider an amendment (#29) to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) introduced by Reps. McAdams (D-UT), Gabbard (D-HI), Titus (D-NV), McGovern (D-MA), Horsford (D-NV), and Susie Lee (D-NV) that is designed to prohibit funding for a demonstration nuclear test explosion in fiscal year 2021.

Members of Congress need to consider the following facts as they weigh-in on this critical issue:

  • Resuming nuclear testing would be nuclear nonproliferation malpractice. There is no chance a demonstration nuclear test explosion would compel Russia or China to make unilateral concessions at the negotiating table. Instead, it would harden their positions, undermine the global nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and transform the United States from a nonproliferation leader to a nonproliferation rogue state.
     
  • A resumption of U.S. nuclear testing, for any reason, would increase incentives for other nuclear-armed states to conduct their own tests. The nuclear weapons programs of countries, including China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia would have far more to gain from nuclear explosive testing than the United States, which has conducted more nuclear tests (1,030) than all other states combined.
     
  • The United States does not need nuclear test explosions to ensure the reliability of its nuclear arsenal. For more than a quarter-century, the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship Program has worked extraordinarily well in ensuring the reliability of the existing nuclear warhead types in the U.S. arsenal. The overwhelming majority of the past U.S. nuclear test explosions were for “weapons development” and “weapons effects” purposes. There is simply no technical reason to resume testing now, nor in the foreseeable future.

    (Source: Stephen Herzog, Benoît Pelopidas, Jonathon Baron, Fabrício Fialho, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, June 23, 2020.)
  • Public opinion polling continues to show that overwhelming majorities oppose the resumption of nuclear testing. A recent public opinion survey conducted between Aug. and Nov. 2019 shows that 71.9 percent of all Americans would oppose a nuclear test if conducted today. Since the 1990s, public opinion polling has consistently shown that Americans of all political stripes approve of the United States continuing to abide by its moratorium on nuclear testing by wide margins.
     
  • Over the years, nuclear testing has killed or sickened thousands of military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well the people who lived downrange from U.S. test sites, including tens of thousands in the continental United States. These impacted communities are still dealing with the devastating legacy of nuclear testing decades after the U.S. conducted its last nuclear test in 1992. The responsible step for Congress would be to extend and expand the Radiation Effects Compensation Act (RECA) rather than to endorse talk of resuming U.S. nuclear testing, which would dishonor the experiences of downwinders and atomic veterans.
     
  • A resumption of U.S. testing would violate the global taboo against nuclear testing established by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. As one of the 184 signatories of the CTBT, the United States has a legal obligation not to take actions that violate the object and purpose of the treaty, which is to prohibit nuclear test explosions, no matter what the yield. Renewed testing by the U.S. would undermine global support for operating and maintaining the treaty’s International Monitoring System, which the United States itself depends upon to help monitor other states’ compliance with the nuclear test ban.
     
  • Safeguards should be put in place to ensure that no president may resume U.S. nuclear testing for any purpose, without a clear reason, adequate debate, or Congressional approval. Once ordered by the president, a “rapid” nuclear test explosion (without significant instrumentation) could be conducted in as little as six months, if not sooner, underground at the former Nevada Test Site, potentially with little or no Congressional input or public debate.

To ensure that the White House does not seek to side-step the role of Congress to review and authorize any request to conduct a nuclear test just months before the presidential election, Congress must enact legislation to require detailed reporting by the president on any proposal to resume testing and requires an affirmative vote by more than a simple majority of Congress.

In response to a question from David Sanger of The New York Times, Marshall Billingslea, the special presidential envoy for arms control, said June 24: “[W]e maintain and will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see any reason to do so, whatever that reason may be. But that said, I am unaware of any particular reason to test at this stage. I won’t shut the door on it because why would we?”

There is no technical or geopolitical reason for the United States to resume testing.

If senior White House officials continue to insist that the president will not rule out the option of conducting a nuclear test explosion, it is vitally important that Congress step in to ensure that nuclear weapons testing is not an option the president may exercise unilaterally, now or in the future.—DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director

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If the White House will not rule out the option of conducting new nuclear tests, Congress should step in to ensure that such testing is not an option the president may exercise unilaterally, now or in the future.

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Reaction to White House Nuclear Testing Proposal Strongly Negative

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Volume 12, Issue 4, June 16, 2020

The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992 when a bipartisan congressional majority approved legislation mandating a nine-month nuclear test moratorium. The following year, President Bill Clinton extended the moratorium and launched multilateral negotiations on a global test ban. In 1996, the United States was the first to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which verifiably prohibits all nuclear test explosions of any yield.

Today, the CTBT has 184 signatories but has not formally entered into force due to the failure of the United States, China, and six other hold-out states to ratify the pact. Nevertheless, the treaty has established a global taboo against all nuclear testing. North Korea is the only country believed to have conducted nuclear tests in this century.

Now, the Trump administration is weighing whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion for political signaling purposes. According to a May 22 report by The Washington Post, senior national security officials discussed the option of a demonstration nuclear blast at a May 15 interagency meeting. A senior administration official told The Post that a “rapid test” by the United States could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as the Trump administration seeks an arms control agreement with Russia and China.

Making matters worse, in a party-line vote June 11, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to authorize $10 million to execute a nuclear test if necessary. Such a test could be conducted in a matter of a few months underground at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas.

In reality, the first U.S. nuclear test blast in 28 years would do nothing to rein in Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals or improve the environment for negotiations. Rather, it would raise tensions and probably trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other nuclear actors, leading to an all-out global arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.

On June 4, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation that would restrict funds for fiscal year 2021 and all previous years from being used for resuming nuclear weapons testing. Markey’s bill, named the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act, was cosponsored by 14 senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Reps. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) introduced companion legislation in the House June 8.

As Congress now works on the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, members should include a provision that prohibits any funding for a U.S. nuclear test.

The following are excerpts from the growing number of statements against a resumption of U.S. nuclear weapons testing, as well as some additional resources. —SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant

Statements Against Resumption of Nuclear Testing
*updated June 17, 2020

“The United States not only has conducted the largest number of nuclear tests by any country, it also has built over the last 25 years an expansive science-based stewardship program to sustain the reliability and safety of the nuclear weapons stockpile without testing. This is to our advantage. A return to testing by nuclear weapons states, and increased risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons capability to others, would negate this advantage and undermine U.S. and global security.”

—Ernest J. Moniz, former Secretary of Energy, and Sam Nunn, former U.S. Senator (D-Ga.), May 27, 2020

“The possibility that the Trump administration may resume nuclear explosive weapons testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous. We have not tested a device since 1992; we don’t need to do so now … The Administration reportedly believes a test will help compel Russia or China to come to the negotiating table on a new arms control agreement. This is delusional. A resumption of testing is more likely to prompt other countries to resume militarily significant nuclear testing and undermine our nuclear nonproliferation goals.”

—Joseph Biden, former U.S. vice president, May 28, 2020

“... a U.S. nuclear test would most likely have a very different effect: opening the door for tests by other countries to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons. A smarter policy would maintain the current moratorium on nuclear testing and ratify and seek to bring into force the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

—Amb. Steven Pifer, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia on the National Security Council, May 28, 2020

“In general, any actions or activities by any country that violate the international norm against nuclear testing, as underpinned by the CTBT, would constitute a grave challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, as well as to global peace and security more broadly.”

—Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, May 28, 2020

“Not only could this kick off a new arms race, but other countries would have far more to gain from nuclear testing than the United States. We do not need to resume nuclear testing to ensure the reliability of our nuclear arsenal. Doing so would be expensive and further strain an already over-taxed Energy Department nuclear enterprise.

“Nuclear testing has also killed or sickened thousands of military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well as civilians who lived on or downrange from the testing sites. These impacted communities are still dealing with the devastating legacy of nuclear testing decades after the U.S. conducted its last nuclear test. A decision to resume U.S. nuclear testing would dishonor their experiences.”

—Letter to Congress from 24 nuclear arms control, environmental, and peace organizations, May 28, 2020

“No. Hell no. Not now. Not ever. Nevada will not be subjected to nuclear bombing again.”

—Editorial Board, Las Vegas Sun, May 31, 2020

“An American test would likely be answered by Russian and Chinese tests, and perhaps by others. Although the United States, Russia, and China have mature arsenals and don’t need the tests to improve design, other countries like India, Pakistan, and North Korea would see an American test as an excuse to improve their designs to fit on smaller missiles. Worst of all would be the signal that the United States is willing to break treaties and brandish the world’s most destructive weapons for political means.”

—Cheryl Rofer, former chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, May 2020

“Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, a resumption of testing is both unjustified and destabilizing, and opens the door to an expensive arms race. We staunchly oppose resurrecting the era of worldwide nuclear testing, especially in light of the unnecessary risks such actions would pose to the American people. The decision to resume nuclear testing is not one that should be taken lightly.”

—Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation Subcommittee, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and 23 other members, June 5, 2020

“A return to nuclear testing is not only scientifically and technically unnecessary but also dangerously provocative. It would signal to the world that the U.S. no longer has confidence in the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear weapons. It would needlessly antagonize important allies, cause other countries to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and prompt adversaries to respond in kind—risking a new nuclear arms race and further undermining the global nonproliferation regime. None of these developments would improve America’s national security or strengthen its position in the world.”

—Letter from U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-Ill.), U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and a bicameral group of 80 other colleagues urging President Trump not to resume explosive nuclear testing, June 8, 2020

“It is unfathomable that the administration is considering something so short-sighted and dangerous, and that directly contradicts its own 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which this administration often cites as inviolable, makes clear that ‘the United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.’”

—Letter to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Defense Secretary Mark Esper from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.); Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.); Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces; Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water; and Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, June 8, 2020

“We have seen firsthand how nuclear weapons testing puts Americans at greater risk for cancer and hurts our livelihoods. This administration should not use our lives as a bargaining chip for a last-ditch attempt at a trilateral arms-control deal with unwilling parties.”

—Jennifer Seelig, former Utah House Minority Leader (D), and Ryan Wilcox, former Utah State Representative (R), June 8, 2020

 “Such [nuclear] tests would bring no military or strategic benefit to the United States. Instead, they would undermine the foundational global agreement that has curbed the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide for more than 50 years, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

—Amb. Thomas Graham, former U.S. special representative for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, June 10, 2020

Resuming nuclear testing “is not necessary to ensure the continued reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It could also increase threats to U.S. and allied security by giving a green light to other countries, including dangerous proliferators, to conduct nuclear tests of their own…There is no technical reason to resume testing now. The Stockpile Stewardship Program works extraordinarily well in ensuring the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

—William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, and Frank Klotz, former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, June 10, 2020

“With no stated justification to resume testing, we unequivocally oppose any Administration’s efforts to resume explosive nuclear testing in Nevada. Not only would such an action compromise the health and safety of Nevadans, degrade vital water resources, and harm the surrounding environment, but it would also undermine future stockpile stewardship efforts, undercut our nuclear nonproliferation goals, and further weaken strategic partnerships with our global allies.”

—Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), and Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), June 12, 2020

“As scientists with expertise on nuclear weapons issues, including many with long involvement in the US nuclear weapons program, we strongly oppose the resumption of explosive testing of US nuclear weapons. There is no technical need for a nuclear test. Indeed, statements attributed to administration officials suggest the motivation is that a nuclear explosive test would provide leverage in future nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia and China. ”

—12 former nuclear weapons scientists in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, June 16, 2020

Additional Resources

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The Trump administration is weighing whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion as a negotiating standpoint as it seeks an arms control agreement with Russia and China. Making matters worse, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to authorize $10 million to execute a nuclear test if necessary.

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Subject Resources:

Surging U.S. Nuclear Weapons Budget a Growing Danger

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Volume 12, Issue 3, March 19, 2020

The projected cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal continues to grow. And grow. And grow some more. The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request released in February reinforces what has long been forewarned: The administration’s excessive strategy to replace nearly the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal at roughly the same time is a ticking budget time bomb, even at historically high levels of national defense spending.

“I am concerned that … we have underestimated the risks associated with such a complex and time-constrained modernization and recapitalization effort,” Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 13.

Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, the director of the Navy strategic systems programs, put it even more bluntly to the House Armed Services Committee on March 3. There is a “pervasive and overwhelming risk carried within the nuclear enterprise as refurbishment programs face capacity, funding, and schedule challenges,” he said.

Adm. Richard and Vice Adm. Wolfe support the administration’s modernization approach and believe that delays to the effort could undermine the U.S. nuclear deterrent. But their warnings should prompt renewed questions about whether the spending plans are necessary and sustainable. The need for a fundamental reassessment is magnified by the rising human and financial toll that the novel coronavirus is inflicting on the national economy. The threat to worker safety and health posed by the disease could exacerbate the execution challenges identified by Adm. Richard and Adm. Wolfe.

Last year, Congress supported the administration’s nuclear budget priorities despite strong opposition from the Democratic-led House. But the costs and opportunity costs of the plans are real and growing – and the biggest modernization bills are just beginning to hit. Scaling back the proposals for new delivery systems, warheads, and their infrastructure would make the nuclear weapons modernization effort easier to execute and save scores of billions of taxpayer dollars that should be spent on addressing higher priority national and health security challenges. Such adjustments would still leave ample funding to sustain a devasting U.S. nuclear deterrent.

The Fiscal Year 2021 Nuclear Budget Request

The administration is requesting $44.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 for the Defense and Energy Departments to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear delivery systems and warheads and their supporting infrastructure, a larger-than-anticipated increase of about $7.3 billion, or 19 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 level. This includes $28.9 billion for the Pentagon and $15.6 billion for the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The proposed spending on nuclear weapons constitutes about 6 percent of the total national defense request, up from about 5 percent last year. By 2024, projected spending on the nuclear arsenal is slated to consume 6.8% of total national defense spending. The percentage will continue to rise through the late-2020s and early-2030s when modernization spending is slated to peak.

The largest increase sought is for the NNSA nuclear weapons activities account. The budget request calls for $15.6 billion, an astonishing increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. Over the next five years, the NNSA is planning to request over $81 billion for weapons activities, a nearly 24 percent increase over what it planned to seek over the same period as of last year.

To put the NNSA weapons activities request in perspective, $15.6 billion is almost twice as much as the $8.3 billion emergency spending bill signed into law March 6 to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus through prevention efforts and research to quickly produce a vaccine for the deadly disease.

The budget request would support continued implementation of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which called for expanding U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities. In addition to continuing full speed ahead with the previous administration’s plans to upgrade the arsenal on a largely like-for-like basis, the Trump administration proposed to develop two new sea-based low-yield nuclear options (one of which it has already begun deploying) and lay the groundwork to grow the size of the warhead stockpile.

The projected long-term cost of the proposed nuclear spending spree is even more staggering. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected last year that the United States is poised to spend nearly $500 billion, after including the effects of inflation, to maintain and replace its nuclear arsenal between fiscal years 2019 and 2028. This is an increase of nearly $100 billion, or about 23 percent, above the already enormous projected cost as of the end of the Obama administration. Over the next 30 years, the price tag is likely to top $1.5 trillion and could even approach $2 trillion.

These big nuclear bills are coming due as the Defense Department is seeking to replace large portions of its conventional forces and must contend with internal fiscal pressures, such as rising maintenance and operations costs. In addition, external fiscal pressures, such as the growing national debt and the significant economic contraction caused by the coronavirus pandemic, are all likely to limit the growth of – and perhaps reduce – military spending. Indeed, the Trump administration is recommending a lower national defense budget top line in fiscal year 2021 than Congress provided last year.

“The Pentagon must come to terms with the reality that future defense budgets are likely to be flat, which will force leaders to make some tough choices,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Feb. 6.

The costs and risks of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans are compounded by its hostility to arms control. The administration withdrew the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August 2019 and has shown little interest in extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). If New START expires in February 2021 with nothing to replace it, the incentives for the United States and Russia to grow the size of their arsenals beyond the treaty limits would grow. A new quantitative arms race would cause the already high costs of the modernization effort to soar even higher.

Triad Budget Rises as Planned

The budget request contains large but planned increases to maintain the schedule of Pentagon programs to sustain and rebuild the U.S. triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers.

The request includes $4.4 billion for the Navy program to build 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The Air Force is seeking $2.8 billion to continue development of the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, $500 million for the long-range standoff weapon program to replace the existing air-launched cruise missile, and $1.5 billion for the program to replace the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile with a missile system called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). The Pentagon is also asking for $4.2 billion to sustain and upgrade nuclear command, control, and communications systems.

Collectively, the request for these programs is an increase of $3.2 billion, or more than 30 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 level.

Over the next five years, the Pentagon is projecting to request $167 billion to sustain and modernize delivery systems and their supporting command and control infrastructure. The Columbia-class, GBSD, and B-21 programs could each cost between $100-$150 billion after including the effects of inflation and likely cost overruns, easily putting them among the top 10 most expensive Pentagon acquisition programs.

 
 

 

NNSA Budget Explodes

The NNSA budget submission includes large unplanned cost increases for several ongoing warhead life extension programs, the acceleration of the W93 program to develop a newly-designed submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, the expansion of the production of plutonium pits for nuclear warheads to at least 80 per year, and other large infrastructure recapitalization projects.

The factors driving the NNSA to request such large unplanned increases are unclear. The agency said last year that its fiscal year 2020 budget plan was “fully consistent” with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and “affordable and executable.” Under that proposal, the NNSA did not plan to request more than $15 billion for the weapons activities account until 2030.

Several major ongoing programs would reportedly be delayed in the absence of the increase, which would suggest that they have encountered cost overruns. 

It is unlikely that the NNSA will be able to spend such a large increase in one year. Allison Bawden, a director at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told the House Armed Services Committee on March 3 that spending the requested amount “will be very challenging.” This view is supported by the fact that the weapons activities account is sitting on approximately $5.5 billion in unspent carryover balances from previous years.

Despite massive budget increases since the Trump administration took office, the executability of NNSA’s plans is highly questionable. The ambition of the agency’s modernization program is unlike anything seen since the Cold War. Bawden noted that the GAO is “concerned about the long-term affordability of the plans.” Former NNSA administrator Frank Klotz said in a January 2018 interview before the release of the Nuclear Posture Review that the agency was already “working pretty much at full capacity.”

According to Bawden, the tightly coupled nature of the NNSA’s modernization program is such that “any delay could have a significant cascading effect on the overall effort.” The agency has consistently underestimated the cost and schedule risks of major warhead life extension programs and infrastructure recapitalization projects. An independent assessment published last year found “no historical precedent” for the NNSA’s plan to produce 80 plutonium pits per year by 2030. The assessment also stated that the agency had never completed a major project costing more than $700 million in fewer than 16 years.

This chart shows the NNSA’s future-years nuclear security program (FYNSP) for each fiscal year starting with FY 2017. The FYNSP reflects what the agency estimates its budget will be for that current fiscal year and the four succeeding fiscal years.Moreover, while the NNSA’s five-year spending projection sustains the enormous fiscal year 2021 funding proposal, outyear funding is slated to grow at a set rate of 2.1 percent. In other words, the outyear projections aren't based on what NNSA believes it will actually need. Several major NNSA efforts, such as developing a warhead for a new sea-launched cruise missile and the full scope of the plutonium pit production and uranium enrichment recapitalization plans, are not yet part of the budget. In sum, if "past is precedent," the outyear projections will exceed growth with inflation.

Nuclear Force Modernization Cannibalizes Conventional Military Modernization

The damaging opportunity costs of the administration’s decision to prioritize nuclear weapons are on full display in the budget request. The Navy has long been warning that the planned recapitalization of the ballistic missile submarine force will pose a particularly significant affordability challenge. The request includes funding to purchase the first submarine in the class over the next three years.

“[W]e must begin a 40-year recapitalization of our [SSBN] force,” Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly wrote in a Feb. 18 memo directing the Navy to identify $40 billion in savings over the next five years. “This requirement will consume a significant portion of our shipbuilding budget in the coming years and squeeze out funds we need to build a larger fleet.”

The Navy is requesting $19.9 billion for shipbuilding in fiscal year 2021, a decrease of $4.1 billion below the fiscal year 2020 level.

The shipbuilding budget also paid the price for the enormous unplanned increase for the NNSA. The agency’s budget submission was reportedly a controversial issue within the Trump administration and was not resolved until days before the Feb. 10 public release of the budget. President Trump ultimately signed off on adding over $2 billion to the NNSA’s weapons activities account, forcing a late scramble to make room for the additional funding.

Though the Pentagon has not confirmed the exact amount that was taken to pay for the increase, members of Congress and media reports indicate that the increase for the NNSA prevented the Navy from adding a second Virginia-class attack submarine to the shipbuilding budget. The decision to cut an attack submarine to pay for a budget increase the NNSA said last year it didn’t need is hard to square with the Pentagon’s top overall defense priority of preparing for great power competition with China.

Nuclear Weapons Aren’t Cheap

The Pentagon argues that even at its peak in the late-2020s, spending on nuclear weapons is affordable because it will consume a peak of roughly 6.4 percent of total Pentagon spending in 2029. But this figure is misleading for several reasons. For starters, the figure doesn’t include spending at the NNSA. When NNSA spending is included, nuclear weapons already account for 6 percent of the total FY 2021 national defense budget request. Regardless, even 6 percent of a budget as large as the Pentagon’s is an enormous amount of money. By comparison, the March 2013 congressionally mandated sequester reduced national defense spending (minus exempt military personnel accounts) by 7 percent. Military leaders and lawmakers repeatedly described the sequester as devastating.

Meanwhile, a better measure of the opportunity costs of prioritizing nuclear modernization is to compare spending on that modernization to overall Defense Department acquisition spending. The Pentagon is requesting $17.7 billion for nuclear weapons research, development, and procurement in fiscal year 2021. This amount already accounts for 7.3 percent of the total requested Pentagon acquisition spending. While the Pentagon is projecting a decline in total acquisition spending over the next five years, nuclear acquisition spending is primed for a major increase. The CBO estimated in 2017 that by the early 2030s, spending on nuclear weapons would rise to 15 percent of the Pentagon’s total acquisition costs.

Pentagon officials also repeatedly claim that unless they get every penny that they are asking for to modernize the arsenal, the arsenal will begin to erode into obsolescence. But this is a false choice. The right question is whether the administration’s approach is necessary, sustainable, and safe, especially in the absence of any negotiated restraints on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. And the right answer is that the administration’s current path is unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe – and must be rethought.

Recommendations for Congress

The bottom line is that Trump administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans cannot be sustained without significant and sustained increases to defense spending – which are unlikely to be forthcoming – or cuts to other security priorities. The current approach is a costly and irrational recipe for nuclear modernization program delays and scope reductions.

But while the plans pose significant challenges, they need not prevent the United States from continuing to field a powerful and credible nuclear force sufficient to deter or respond to a nuclear attack against the United States and its allies. The administration inherited a larger and more diverse nuclear arsenal than is required for deterrence and its approach to modernization and arms control would increase the risks of miscalculation, unintended escalation, and accelerated global nuclear competition.

Instead, the United States could save at least $150 billion in fiscal year 2017 constant dollars through the mid-2040s by adjusting the current modernization approach while still retaining a triad and deploying the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Such an approach would reflect a nuclear strategy that reduces reliance on nuclear weapons, emphasizes stability and survivability, de-emphasizes nuclear warfighting, reduces the risk of miscalculation, and is more affordable and executable.

The options include:

  • Buying 10 instead of 12 new Columbia class ballistic missile submarines;
  • Extending the life of the existing Minuteman III ICBM instead of building a new missile and reducing the size of the ICBM force from 400 missiles to 300 missiles (for a detailed discussion of the case for this option, see here);
  • Foregoing development of new nuclear air- and sea-launched cruise missiles;
  • Scaling back plans to build newly-designed ICBM and SLBM warheads;
  • Aiming for a pit production capacity of 30-50 pits per year by 2035 instead of at least 80 pits per year by 2030;
  • Foregoing development of a new uranium enrichment facility; and
  • Retiring the megaton-class B-83 gravity bomb.

Simply reverting to the fiscal year 2020 budget plan for NNSA weapons activities would save over $15.5 billion over the next five years.

Now is the time to re-evaluate nuclear weapons spending plans before the largest investments are made. Of course, pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending. A significant portion of the overall cost of nuclear weapons is fixed. That said, changes to the nuclear replacement program could make it easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise.

In addition to pursuing adjustments to the scope and scale of the modernization program, Congress should also take steps to improve its understanding of the long-term budget challenges. These include:

  • Holding in-depth hearings on U.S. nuclear weapons policy and spending;
  • Requiring the Defense and Energy Departments to prepare a report on options for reducing the scale and scope of their nuclear modernization plans and the associated cost savings;
  • Mandating unclassified annual government updates on the projected long-term costs of nuclear weapons;
  • Requiring an independent report on alternatives to building a new ICBM;
  • Tasking the GAO to annually assess the affordability of the Defense and Energy Department’s modernization plans; and
  • Requiring the NNSA to perform detailed work examining the estimated life of plutonium pits.

Also, lawmakers should more aggressively highlight the relationship between arms control and upgrading the arsenal. The administration’s current one-sided approach both compounds the dangers of the spending plans and flies in the face of longstanding Congressional support for the pursuit of modernization and arms control in tandem.

If the administration continues to insist on nuclear weapons modernization without arms control, then Congress should make it clear that it will not allow the president to increase the size of the arsenal above the New START limits and will be further emboldened to seek to restrain the administration’s excessive and unsustainable spending plans.—Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and Shannon Bugos, research assistant

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The Trump administration’s excessive strategy to replace nearly the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal at roughly the same time is a ticking budget time bomb, even at historically high levels of national defense spending.

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Risks and Realities of Extending the UN Arms Embargo on Iran

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Volume 12, Issue 2, March 5, 2020

More than a decade ago, the United States and its partners secured UN Security Council support for a series of resolutions imposing increasingly tough sanctions on Iran as part of an effort to pressure Tehran into multilateral talks to curb its nuclear program and block its pathways to nuclear weapons.

The United States along with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union (P5+1), combined international pressure with multilateral negotiations, a strategy that produced the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA successfully rolled back Iran’s nuclear program, imposed a stringent new set of monitoring and verification requirements, some of which are permanent, and established an array of restrictions that limited Iran’s uranium enrichment for more than a decade, and effectively closed off its capability to produce plutonium. The deal also includes a permanent prohibition on certain nuclear weapons-related activities that also have non-nuclear applications. In exchange, Iran received relief from the United States, the United Nations, and European Union sanctions that were imposed as part of the pressure campaign.

Despite Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in May 2018 and violated U.S. JCPOA commitments by reimposing sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration also urged other countries to refrain from conducting legitimate business with Iran.

A year after Trump’s announcement, Iran stated that it would begin reducing compliance with the JCPOA, and it has taken a series of five steps designed to press the remaining parties to the deal to deliver on sanctions relief envisioned by the accord. Iranian officials continue to reiterate that its violations are reversible and that Tehran will return to compliance if its demands on sanctions relief are met.

The Arms Embargo, Nuclear Sanctions, and the JCPOA

As part of the initial, broader effort to pressure Iran into negotiating over its nuclear program, the UN Security Council passed several resolutions that imposed an arms embargo on Iran. (A full list of UN Security Council resolutions on Iran is available online.) The arms embargo provisions are, therefore, a nuclear-related sanction. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice originally emphasized in 2010, when the arms embargo was expanded as part of Resolution 1929, that the sanctions would be suspended if a nuclear deal was reached.

In a statement issued on behalf of the P5+1, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the UN, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, made a similar point about the intent of the sanctions in Resolution 1929. He said the aim of the sanctions was “to achieve a comprehensive and long-term settlement which would restore international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

During negotiations on the JCPOA, Iran argued that the arms embargo should be lifted immediately upon implementation of the nuclear deal and Russia and China supported that effort, according to former Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry said that the United States pressed for retaining it and negotiated the five-year extension, which is reflected in Annex B, Paragraph 5 of Security Council Resolution 2231.

Resolution 2231, which was adopted unanimously by the Security Council in 2015, endorsed the JCPOA, lifted the majority of the UN sanctions and modified other nuclear-related measures, such as the arms embargo and prohibition on ballistic missile transfers. Under the terms of Resolution 2231, this five-year period ends in October 2020, unless UN sanctions on Iran are snapped back into place. Kerry described the five-year extension as a victory for the United States because, as he noted in 2015, Resolution 1929 “says specifically that if Iran comes to negotiate – not even get a deal, but comes to negotiate – sanctions would be lifted.”

Now, press reports indicate that some opponents of the JCPOA are pressing Congressional members to support a renewal or extension of the arms embargo at the UN Security Council. Although these Congressional efforts do not explicitly reference support for the snapback mechanism set up in Resolution 2231, urging the Trump administration to ensure the continuation of the UN arms embargo could be interpreted by Trump as a green light from Congress to pursue that strategy. (And because a wholly new resolution seeking to extend the arms embargo on Iran would assuredly be vetoed by Russia or China.)

On a superficial level, calls for extending the arms embargo on Iran may seem like a useful and politically expedient response to Iran’s aggressive activities in the Middle East region. But in reality, such exhortations could undermine regional security by facilitating the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the JCPOA completely.

Reimposing UN Sanctions Would Collapse the Iran Nuclear Deal

Although the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and is no longer party to the agreement, some members of the  Trump administration believe the United States can still use the mechanism set out in Resolution 2231 to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran, including the arms embargo. "We're aiming to get that [arms embargo] extended," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said March 5.

The Trump administration appears to believe that it can still trigger sanctions snapback at the Security Council because the United States was never formally removed from the original list of JCPOA participating states in Resolution 2231.

Other UN Security Council members, who strongly support the JCPOA, will argue that this legal argument is baseless since Trump declared that the United States is no longer a party to the JCPOA. They will surely seek to block any effort to put the issue of snapping back sanctions on Iran on the Security Council’s agenda. Once and if the issue is put on the Security Council agenda, however, the process for reimposing sanctions under Resolution 2231 cannot be vetoed.

If the Trump administration is successful in snapping back UN sanctions, the JCPOA will very likely collapse, which could trigger a new nuclear crisis.

Iran has made clear that it will withdraw from the nuclear if any state attempts to pursue a snapback at the Security Council. In that event, Iran’s nuclear program would be unconstrained and could be subject to far less intrusive monitoring.

Additionally, pushing to renew the arms embargo now based on Iran’s destabilizing regional activity further damages U.S. credibility. Arguing that the arms embargo should be extended on that basis changes the original intent and motivation behind the sanctions, which was to pressure Iran to negotiate on its nuclear program. Altering the requirements for lifting those sanctions reinforces the message to Iran that the United States cannot be trusted to waive sanctions if Tehran meets the originally described pathway to lifting the restrictions. This would make any future negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program even more difficult, as Iran will have little reason to trust the United States would follow through on its commitments.

The expiration of the arms embargo could have troublesome consequences, but the United States has other tools to address Iran’s conventional arms trade that do not risk a collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal and inflict damage to the reputation and influence of the United States.

Calls to extend the arms embargo risk conveying Congressional support for triggering the UNSC Resolution 2231 snapback mechanism, which would only escalate the Trump administration’s self-created crisis over Iran’s nuclear program and further undermine U.S. and international security.

The smarter approach for U.S. policymakers is to support more realistic and effective diplomatic efforts, beginning with a return to U.S. and Iranian compliance to the JCPOA, and a broader negotiation on a follow-on nuclear agreement that builds on the 2015 deal and that takes on other issues of mutual concern, including destabilizing arms transfers to states in the Middle East region.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director.

Description: 
On a superficial level, calls for extending the arms embargo on Iran may seem like a useful and politically expedient response to Iran’s aggressive activities in the Middle East region. But in reality, such exhortations could undermine regional security.

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