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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Daryl Kimball

Enough Already: No New ICBMs


March 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

President Joe Biden entered office with a deep knowledge of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the arms race. During the campaign, he said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and “will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Realizing that vision will require a sober-minded reassessment of outdated nuclear deterrence assumptions, a fresh look at Trump-era nuclear weapons spending plans, and political courage.

Biden can start by directing his team to put on hold the Pentagon’s scheme to develop, test, and deploy beginning in 2029 a new fleet of 400 land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). If pursued, the new missile would cost in excess $264 billion over its anticipated 50-year life cycle.

The new weapon—the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD)—is just one part of the staggeringly expensive plan left over from the Trump era to replace and upgrade the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal at a projected cost of upward of $1.5 trillion over the next quarter-century.

This GBSD program pause would deemphasize the role of ICBMs, allow for a serious evaluation of the option of extending the life of the existing force of 400 Minuteman III ICBMs at a lower cost, and provide for the pursuit of deep mutual reductions in the bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Not only is the U.S. nuclear arsenal costly, it is excessive and redundant. The land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad is the most destabilizing. U.S. ICBMs are maintained on high alert, ready to launch within minutes of an order by the president. This posture is ostensibly designed to avoid a massive, surprise nuclear attack by Russia, which deploys its own massive, land-based missile force in a similar “launch under attack” posture.

Each country’s deadly ICBM force perversely justifies the existence of the other’s, perpetuating the risk of a massive nuclear exchange that might be triggered by a false alarm or a future cyberattack on nuclear command-and-control systems.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Air Force wants you to believe that ICBMs are needed to act as a warhead “sponge” that requires Russia to expend a large portion of its nuclear inventory in a potential all-out war scenario. This is important, the argument goes, because it would give the United States a numerical advantage in second-strike strategic forces.

Even veteran lawmakers such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) seem to accept this bizarre nuclear war-fighting theology. “They can’t risk a ‘first strike’ against us unless they take those out,” Reed told Bloomberg last month.

Such arguments do not hold up. Why would Russia or China deliberately launch a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear first strike against U.S. ICBM fields if, as is the case, this would assure their own annihilation? With or without ICBMs, the United States could still launch a devastating nuclear retaliatory strike from just a portion of its invulnerable fleet of 12 strategic submarines and dispersed bomber-based weapons that can be distributed before the hypothetical adversary nuclear attack.

Just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine, carrying 160 thermonuclear warheads, each with an explosive yield of 100 kilotons or greater, could devastate a large country and kill tens of millions of people. The reality is that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Even if one believes that ICBMs are useful targets in the event of a Russian nuclear attack, why not opt for a cheaper nuclear sponge? Some or all of the existing force of Minuteman III ICBMs can be life-extended for decades more and at a much lower cost. By deferring the GBSD program and extending the existing Minuteman III force, the United States could save at least $37 billion through the mid-2030s, according to a 2017 Congressional Budget Office estimate.

Corporate and military GBSD boosters disingenuously argue against Minuteman III by saying it cannot meet their “requirement” for 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075. That assumes, incorrectly, that the United States needs 400 ICBMs into the indefinite future. Presidents can change outdated military requirements, and future arms reduction agreements can certainly reduce the number of ICBMs.

The reality is that the United States can deter and, if necessary, respond to nuclear attack without the 400 nuclear warheads atop its 400 ICBMs. Today, the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is at least one-third larger than necessary to deter a nuclear attack.

Accordingly, Washington can reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads from roughly 1,400 today to 1,000 or fewer, as validated by a 2013 Pentagon review, and challenge Russia to do the same. The ICBM force, which is the most vulnerable to attack and the most destabilizing in a crisis, is the place to start cutting the bloated U.S. arsenal.

As the new Biden administration prepares its fiscal year 2022 spending proposal, which is scheduled for release in May, it should freeze funding for the GBSD program at the 2021 level of $1.5 billion while it undertakes a broader review of U.S. nuclear policy and budget alternatives. Doing so would save $1 billion that could be put toward higher-priority national security needs. That review should include life-extending the Minuteman III and ultimately phasing out ICBMs.

President Joe Biden entered office with a deep knowledge of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the arms race. During the campaign, he said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and “will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Two Remain in Contention to Lead CTBTO


March 2021

Following voting last fall to choose the next executive secretary for the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), nominee Robert Floyd, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Nonproliferation Office, fell one vote short of securing the two-thirds necessary. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

The inconclusive outcome requires that signatories to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) repeat the process to select the next leader of the organization before the second term of the current executive secretary, Lassina Zerbo, expires July 31.

On Dec. 21, the chair of the commission for 2020, Faouzia Mebarki of Algeria, set a Feb. 5 deadline for nominations. On Jan. 8, Australia resubmitted the nomination of Floyd.

In her letter, Mebarki wrote that “[i]f the incumbent Executive Secretary is available, he will be deemed a candidate.” On Feb. 2, Zerbo responded by confirming his “ability and commitment to continue working and contributing as Executive Secretary.”

The CTBTO executive secretary is responsible for leading the organization’s work to maintain and operate the CTBT global verification regime in preparation for the treaty’s entry into force, as well as promoting its entry into force. The CTBT has been signed by 185 states and ratified by 170.

Sources tell Arms Control Today that the new chair of the CTBTO, Ivo Šrámek of the Czech Republic, is engaging in “intensive informal consultations to reach consensus” on the selection process. Šrámek says he intends to hold an informal meeting in March to brief delegates on the results of his consultations.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Two Remain in Contention to Lead CTBTO

Nonproliferation Experts Call for Faster Action to Restore U.S. and Iranian Compliance with 2015 Nuclear Deal

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For Immediate Release: Feb 22, 2021

Media Contacts: Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 103; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, DC)—Nonproliferation experts are calling on the European Union, the United States, and Iran to immediately begin technical talks on the steps necessary to restore compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

"We support European Union efforts to immediately convene discussions involving the current parties of the agreement, plus the United States, on the sequencing of the actions that the U.S. and Iranian sides will each need to take to properly implement and restore compliance with the nuclear deal,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy.

"The EU should make clear that these talks are about coordinating the sequencing of the return to compliance and addressing any technical issues that might need to be resolved—such as the future of Iran’s advanced centrifuges not mentioned in the JCPOA—and that this not a renegotiation of the original agreement," she suggested.

"We urge Iran and the other JCPOA parties to respond positively to EU-brokered discussions,” Davenport added.

In a Feb. 1 interview with CNN, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested that Josep Borrell, the EU’s top foreign policy official, could “synchronize” or “choreograph” the moves that the U.S. and Iranian sides will each need to implement to restore compliance with the JCPOA.

The State Department announced Feb. 18 that "the United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward."

But Daryl Kimball, executive director at the Arms Control Association, cautioned that “the IAEA-Iran temporary arrangement on nuclear monitoring keeps open the diplomatic window of opportunity to salvage the nuclear deal, but the opportunity will not last."

“To accelerate progress and signal his intentions, we also urge President Biden to state clearly that the United States will remove the sanctions reimposed by former president Donald Trump in violation of U.S. commitments under the JCPOA when the IAEA verifies Iran is reversing its breaches of JCPOA limits,” Kimball suggested.

“It is also in the United States interest to immediately waive sanctions on multilateral nonproliferation activities mandated by the JCPOA to convert Iran Arak heavy water reactor. This move would further signal the Biden administration’s intentions to meet U.S. commitments under the JCPOA,” he added.

"A return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal by both sides would provide a solid foundation for potential follow-on negotiations on a longer-term framework to address Iran's nuclear program as well as on new, win-win solutions on other areas of concern, such as regional tensions and the ballistic missile programs of Iran and other states in the Middle East,” Kimball said.

Additional Resources

To help explain what is at stake and what needs to happen to restore compliance with the JCPOA and create conditions for follow-on talks, the ACA policy staff has produced three new factsheets:

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Nonproliferation experts are calling on the European Union, the United States, and Iran to begin talks on restoring compliance with the JCPOA

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New Resources on the Iran Nuclear Deal and Steps to Restore Iranian and U.S. Compliance

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For Immediate Release: Feb. 12, 2021

Media Contacts: Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 102; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

The comprehensive 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 verifiably blocked Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons and provided incentives for Tehran to maintain a peaceful nuclear program.

Following the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2018 and Iranian retaliatory measures that began in 2019, however, the agreement is in jeopardy and Iran’s nuclear capacity is increasing.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani continue to say they would like to see all parties return to full compliance with the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But the two sides have not yet worked out an agreement on the sequencing for doing so.

To help explain what’s at stake and what needs to happen to restore compliance with the JCPOA and create conditions for follow-on talks, the ACA policy staff has produced three new factsheets:

For a more in-depth analysis of how the Biden administration can stabilize the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, see the January 2021 Arms Control Association report, Nuclear Challenges for the New U.S. Presidential Administration: The First 100 Days and Beyond.

Promptly and simultaneously restoring U.S. and Iranian compliance with the JCPOA would help stabilize 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 Iran's nuclear program and create space to engage with Iran on other areas of concern, such as regional tensions and the ballistic missile program of Iran and other states in the Middle East.

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To help explain what’s at stake and what needs to happen to restore compliance with the JCPOA and create conditions for follow-on talks, the ACA policy staff has produced three new factsheets.

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    Agreement to Extend New START a Win for Global Security

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    Statement from Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball

    For Immediate Release: Jan. 26, 2021

    Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 104

    We applaud the businesslike, no-nonsense decision by President Biden and President Putin to extend the New START agreement by five years—the maximum allowed under the 2010 treaty.

    Maintaining New START and its verification system will enhance U.S. and global security, curtail dangerous nuclear arms racing, and create the potential for more ambitious steps to reduce the nuclear danger and move us closer to a world without nuclear weapons.

    New START extension should be just the beginning and not the end of U.S. and Russian nuclear disarmament diplomacy. Both countries have a special responsibility and a national interest in reducing and eventually eliminating their bloated, costly, and deadly nuclear stockpiles, which are by far the largest among the world’s nine nuclear-armed actors.

    We urge President Biden and President Putin to go further by directing their diplomats to quickly—within the next 200 days—begin negotiations on a follow-on agreement to achieve deeper mutual reductions in their stockpiles, and seek ways to engage other nuclear-armed states, which possess far smaller but still deadly arsenals, in the nuclear disarmament enterprise.

    A key objective of the next round of bilateral talks should be, in part, deeper verifiable cuts in deployed strategic nuclear weapons. In 2013 the Obama administration determined that the United States could reduce its nuclear force by one-third below New START levels and still meet deterrence requirements. Unfortunately, President Putin rejected the proposal at that time.

    U.S.-Russian follow-on negotiations should also address nonstrategic nuclear weapons; the interrelationship between offensive nuclear weapons and strategic missile defenses; and long-range, dual-capable conventional missiles, including those formerly banned by the INF Treaty.

    Within the first 100 days, the Biden administration should also take steps that could allow the United States to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty so long as Russia continues to remain a party. The Trump administration’s announcement that it would withdraw from the agreement violated Sec. 1234 of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which required the administration to notify Congress 120 days ahead of a U.S. notification of an intent to withdraw from the treaty. The Trump administration did not do so.

    The Biden administration clearly understands the value of effective nuclear arms control for U.S. and international security. As Joe Biden said in the past: “pursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity."

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    A Statement from Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball

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