“I also want to thank Daryl Kimball and the Arms Control Association for allowing me to address all of you today and for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferatio nof weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war.”

– Joseph Biden, Jr.
January 28, 2004
Daryl Kimball

Missile Defense and the Arms Race

December 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Within weeks of taking office, President Joe Biden and his team will be confronted with dozens of pivotal choices. An under-the-radar but consequential decision facing the new administration will be whether and how to move forward with Trump-era plans to expand the U.S. national missile defense footprint with new sea-based missiles that can shoot down long-range ballistic missiles.

The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) fires a Standard Missile-3 during exercise Formidable Shield 2017 over the Atlantic Ocean, Oct. 15, 2017. (Photo: U.S. Navy)Although the new interceptor, known as the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA, may help mitigate the ballistic missile threat from North Korea in the near term, it will undoubtedly encourage Russia and China to believe they need to continue to enhance the capability and quantity of their offensive nuclear-armed missiles—and undoubtedly complicate progress on arms control.

Nuclear strategists have long understood that the development and deployment of strategic missile interceptors are ineffective against determined nuclear-armed adversaries but could lead them nonetheless to build more numerous and sophisticated offensive missile systems to overwhelm and evade missile defenses.

To prevent costly and destabilizing missile competition, Washington and Moscow agreed to cap strategic missile interceptors to no more than 100 each under the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Those limits facilitated progress on arms control and steep reductions in U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces.

Even after the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, U.S. policymakers have focused for the most part on improving capabilities to address limited missile threats from rogue states. To date, the Pentagon has only managed to field 44 strategic interceptors as part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. This system would be ineffective against Russia’s arsenal of some 450 land- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and China’s arsenal of some 100 ICBMs.

As North Korea has improved its ballistic missile capabilities in recent years, however, Congress has poured billions of dollars more into the Missile Defense Agency to develop, procure, and test additional missile defense capabilities and explore new technologies.

In 2019, the Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review recommended a more robust approach “to further thicken defensive capabilities for the U.S. homeland” to defend against the rogue-state threat. But President Donald Trump declared that the goal is to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

Such an approach, if pursued, would represent a major departure from the traditional policy of defending against limited attacks from North Korea or possibly Iran.

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 defense budget request sought nearly $180 million to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to intercept ICBMs.

On Nov. 17, the Missile Defense Agency tested the SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM-type target. Current Pentagon plans call for building hundreds of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors by 2030 and deploying them on land and at sea across the globe.

James Miller, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and Biden campaign adviser, told Arms Control Today last year that if the SM-3 Block IIA missile becomes part of the U.S. national missile defense architecture, “we should expect the Chinese nuclear arsenal to grow substantially and Russia to resist reductions—and to prepare seriously to break out.”

As a first step, the new administration should reiterate that U.S. homeland missile defense capabilities will be sized to defend against third-party offensive missile threats, not against more sophisticated Russian and Chinese capabilities.

Such a clarification alone will not be sufficient. Moscow has conditioned further offensive nuclear cuts on future limits on U.S. missile defenses. Russia claims its efforts to develop new intercontinental-range nuclear delivery systems such as an undersea torpedo, hypersonic glide vehicle, and nuclear-powered cruise missile are designed to overcome U.S. missile defenses.

China has already begun to respond to U.S. missile defense capabilities by diversifying its nuclear strike capabilities, including by increasing the number of silo-based ICBMs that are armed with multiple warheads.

U.S. efforts to further limit Russian nuclear weapons and bring China into the arms control process are unlikely to gain traction unless Washington agrees to seriously discuss its long-range missile defense capabilities, including the SM-3 Block IIA. Fielding sufficient missile defenses to defend against limited ballistic attacks from North Korea or Iran and agreeing to binding limits on the quantity, location, and capability of such defenses should not be mutually exclusive.

But doing so will require the Biden administration to move away from the simplistic notion that there should never be any limits on U.S. missile defenses.

Twenty years ago, then-Senator Biden argued for the “development of a theater missile defense that enhances regional stability” and against a strategic missile defense system that “would be seen as threatening by both Russia and China.” Now, as president, Biden has a responsibility to adjust the U.S. missile defense strategy so that it strikes the right balance.


Within weeks of taking office, President Joe Biden and his team will be confronted with dozens of pivotal choices.

Pandemic Delays CTBTO Leadership Vote

December 2020

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

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

Pandemic Delays CTBTO Leadership Vote

The Nuclear Ban Treaty: A Much-Needed Wake-Up Call

November 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will enter into force Jan. 22, marks a new, hopeful phase in the long-running struggle to prevent nuclear war and eliminate nuclear weapons. It comes at a time when the risk of nuclear war is rising, the world’s major nuclear-armed states are failing to meet their nuclear disarmament obligations, and public attention is focused on other global threats. The TPNW has the potential to stimulate further action on disarmament and take us closer to a world without nuclear weapons.

A Pakistani girl displays a placard as she stands in front of a replica of the Chagai mountain, where Pakistan detonated its first nuclear weapon test explosion on May 28, 1998, during a demonstration organized by the Citizen Peace Committee, a non government organization, in Islamabad, May 28, 2005. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)For the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons development, production, possession, use and threat of use, and the stationing of another country’s nuclear weapons on a state-party's national territory are all expressly prohibited in a global treaty. The TPNW also requires, for the first time, that states-parties provide victim assistance and environmental remediation to those affected by nuclear weapons use and testing.

The TPNW complements other nonproliferation and disarmament instruments. The new treaty contributes to meeting the obligation of all states-parties to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The TPNW also strengthens the nonproliferation norm enshrined in the NPT by legally obliging states-parties to keep in place their safeguards obligations with the International Atomic Energy Agency at the time of entry into force.

The TPNW also reinforces the ban against nuclear testing established by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.” The CTBT has been signed by 184 states.

By strengthening the international legal structure and political norm against nuclear weapons possession and use, the TPNW further delegitimizes nuclear weapons as instruments of power. As the preamble of the treaty notes, “[A]ny use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, in particular the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.”

The new treaty, which was negotiated in 2017 at the United Nations by a group of more than 120 non-nuclear-weapon states, reflects the fact that, for the majority of the world’s states, nuclear weapons and the policies that threaten their use for any reason are immoral, dangerous, and unsustainable. The TPNW is a powerful challenge to nuclear deterrence orthodoxy, which incorrectly and dangerously assumes that military postures that threaten use of nuclear weapons can be perfectly managed, even in a crisis, and will never fail to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war.

Sadly but not surprisingly, leaders of the five largest and oldest nuclear-armed states, which cannot agree on how to meet their own disarmament obligations, are trying to undermine the growing global support for the TPNW even as they modernize their arsenals and arrogantly insist that their national defense requires threatening the mass annihilation of innocent people with nuclear attack and imperiling countless others not party to any conflict. Such tactics are counterproductive and divisive.

Even though the current governments of these countries and of the four other nuclear-armed states (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) may not yet be ready join the TPNW, they would be better served to publicly recognize its arrival as a good faith effort by the majority of states to eliminate the nuclear danger and build up the legal framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The United States carries the greatest responsibility in this regard. It ushered in the nuclear age and is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war. As a democracy, it also should respect public will. According to a U.S. poll conducted in July by the Chicago Council Survey, 66 percent believe that “no country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons,” which is exactly the vision outlined by the TPNW.

Now that the treaty exists, all states, be they prohibition treaty opponents, supporters, skeptics, or undecided, must learn to live with it responsibly and find creative ways to move forward together on advancing new, effective disarmament measures. For example, Washington should bring home its tactical nuclear weapons from bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey as a step toward enabling these countries to join the TPNW and eliminating all battlefield nuclear weapons.

Other measures to consider include freezing the size of nuclear arsenals and fissile material stockpiles; concluding a multilateral agreement on no first use of nuclear weapons; securing the ratifications needed to bring the CTBT into force; reviving the U.S.-Russian disarmament process, beginning with a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty; banning the introduction of new nuclear weapons; and concluding legally binding commitments not to target or threaten non-nuclear-weapon states. They can begin next year at the 10th NPT Review Conference, now delayed until 2021.

No treaty is perfect, and no treaty can solve all our problems of global and national security, but the TPNW can be made a necessary part of preventing our worst nuclear nightmares from becoming a reality.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which will enter into force Jan. 22, marks a new, hopeful phase in the long-running struggle to prevent nuclear war and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Ban Treaty Set to Enter Into Force

November 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) will enter into force Jan. 22, a date set by the Oct. 24 ratification of the pact by Honduras. The treaty terms call for it to take effect 90 days after the 50th nation deposits its ratification or accession with the United Nations.

Honduran Foreign Minister Maria Dolores Aguero Lara signs the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations on Sept. 20, 2017. Honduras deposited its instrument of ratification on Oct. 24, triggering the treaty's entry into force in 90 days. (Photo: Darren Ornitz/ICAN)For the first time since the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons development, production, possession, use, and threat of use and the stationing of another country’s nuclear weapons on a state-party's national territory are all expressly prohibited in a global treaty. Negotiations on the TPNW were concluded in July 2017 after a negotiating conference involving more than 120 states. The initiative emerged after a series of three international conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons held in 2013–14.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said in an Oct. 24 statement that the entry into force of the TPNW is “the culmination of a worldwide movement to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. It represents a meaningful commitment towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons, which remains the highest disarmament priority of the United Nations.”

The 50th ratification came on the 75th anniversary of the ratification of the UN Charter, which is celebrated annually as UN Day.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, said in a statement that “the 50 countries that ratify this treaty are showing true leadership in setting a new international norm that nuclear weapons are not just immoral but illegal.”

U.S. officials, meanwhile, are actively lobbying states to withdraw their support for the treaty. A letter that accompanied a nonpaper listing U.S. concerns about the TPNW sent in October, stated that “[a]lthough we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), we believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession.”

The U.S. letter, which was delivered to a large number of states and was first reported by the Associated Press, claims that the five original nuclear powers and all of member of NATO “stand unified” in their opposition to the “potential repercussions” of the treaty. The U.S. nonpaper claims that the TPNW is “dangerously counterproductive” to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

One of those five powers, China, issued a more conciliatory view in a Twitter statement on Oct. 24: “China has always been advocating complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons, which is fundamentally in line with purposes of [the treaty]. China will continuously make relentless efforts towards a nuclear-weapon-free world.”

TPNW negotiators have repeatedly underscored that the new treaty seeks full complementarity between the NPT and the new agreement. They also note that the pact advances the existing NPT safeguards regime by legally obliging its states-parties to keep in place any additional safeguards arrangements they have voluntarily agreed to implement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

According to Thomas Hajnoczi, director for disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation for the Austrian Foreign Ministry, “[T]he TPNW did not create a parallel universe to the traditional one founded on the NPT.” In an article published in The Nonproliferation Review earlier this year, Hajnoczi argues that, “on the contrary, it makes the existing universe of legal instruments around the NPT stronger.”

The first global treaty to ban nuclear weapons will take effect in January 2021.

CTBTO Clears Path for Leadership Decision

November 2020
By Daryl G. Kimball

Following weeks of consultations, members of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) agreed in October to resolve a dispute over which states-parties that are in financial arrears to the organization are eligible to vote to select the organization’s executive secretary. The agreement clears the way for members to decide in late November who will lead the organization after July 31, 2021, when current agency leader Lassina Zerbo will have completed his second four-year term.

Current CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo (left) and Robert Floyd, now director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office. (Zerbo photo: CTBTO; Floyd photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)The Vienna-based CTBTO is tasked with building up and operating the treaty’s global verification regime in preparation for the treaty’s entry into force, as well as promoting its entry into force. The organization has an annual budget of $128 million that comes from member state contributions assessed on the UN dues scale. More than 70 nations were behind in their dues in July, a larger number than usual, in part due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic. According to the treaty, nations that have extensive arrears may not vote in CTBTO decisions.

After failing to resolve the voting rights issue earlier this year, CTBTO members voted on Oct. 12 on three proposals to enable some nations to vote. (See ACT, September 2020.) Of the states that are behind in their financial contributions to the organization, 29 filed for exceptions due to exceptional circumstances in order to be granted voting rights for the executive secretary selection process.

An African Group proposal that would have allowed all 29 state signatories to vote who applied to the CTBTO with relevant requests failed to secure the two-thirds majority necessary for adoption. The vote was 35–42, with 12 abstentions.

Russia advanced a compromise proposal that would have restored voting rights to 15 of the 29 that are either in partial arrears; have negotiated a payment plan, such as Afghanistan, Gambia, Iran, Libya, and Sudan; or, in the case of Yemen, are engaged in a civil war. The United States voiced strong opposition to this proposal, apparently because it would have granted voting rights to Iran. The vote on the second proposal also did not reach the necessary two-thirds majority, with 43 in favor, 42 opposed, and 14 abstentions. France, Germany, and Switzerland, which had rejected the first proposal, split with the United States and voted in favor of Russia’s proposed formula.

A Canadian proposal that aimed to restore voting rights for nine states dealing with exceptional circumstances was approved 52–20, with 16 abstentions. The nine countries include Afghanistan, Comoros, Ecuador, Libya, Panama, Peru, Sudan, and Yemen. The original proposed list included Botswana, but it settled its arrears by the time of the vote on the proposal, and its voting rights were automatically restored, according to an email from the CTBTO secretariat to Arms Control Today.

The decision brings the number of countries with voting rights for the organization’s next executive secretary to 123.

According to an Oct. 12 diplomatic note from the CTBTO chair, there are two candidates for the position of executive secretary: incumbent Lassina Zerbo and Robert Floyd, who was formally nominated by Australia ahead of an Oct. 9 deadline. Floyd is currently the director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office, which oversees operation of the 23 CTBTO International Monitoring System stations located on Australian territory.


After resolving a voting rights issue, CTBTO members are now able to select the organization’s next leader.

NPT Review Conference Postponed Again

November 2020

The tenth review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has been postponed until August 2021, according to the United Nations. Originally scheduled to begin in April 2020 at UN headquarters, the review conference has been repeatedly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. (See ACT, April 2020.)

The UN General Assembly Hall will have to wait until August 2021 to host the delayed 2020 NPT Review Conference.  (Photo: Sophia Paris/UN)Conference president Gustavo Zlauvinen of Argentina wrote to NPT states in late October that he “will request the [UN] Secretariat to book the necessary facilities and conference services for the period 2–27 August 2021 for the holding of the tenth NPT review conference at United Nations Headquarters, consistent with the review conference’s original requirements.” Zlauvinen requested a decision under the silence procedure with a deadline of Oct. 28.

In an October communication, Zlauvinen, who also serves as Argentina’s deputy foreign minister, had originally sought to reschedule the conference during Jan. 4–29. Those dates, however, proved difficult for many governments, according to diplomatic sources who spoke with Arms Control Today. In addition, the pandemic still makes it impractical to hold large meetings in the near future, they noted.

In his most recent communication, Zlauvinen noted that the new August 2021 dates are based “on the assumption that conference facilities and operations at UN Headquarters have fully returned to the pre-pandemic levels and with the understanding that it can only be confirmed at a later date, when all UN official mandated meetings have been programmed.”

The review conference typically involves hundreds of representatives from most of the 191 states-parties to the treaty, as well as nongovernmental organizations and meeting support personnel. The conference, which will take place 51 years after the NPT entered into force, is designed to review implementation and compliance with the treaty and seek agreement on action steps to overcome new challenges and fulfill core treaty goals and objectives.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

NPT Review Conference Postponed Again


Subscribe to RSS - Daryl Kimball