"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Kingston Reif

Critics Question U.S. Open Skies Complaints

July/August 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision in May to abandon the Open Skies Treaty, and amid uncertainty about the future of the 34-nation accord, critics are disputing the administration’s rationale for withdrawal.

Swedish soldiers guard a Russian aircraft preparing to conduct an Open Skies Treaty observation flight over Sweden in 2000. (Photo: OSCE)U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that “Russia’s implementation and violation of Open Skies” has negated the “central confidence-building function of the treaty—and has, in fact, fueled distrust and threats to our national security—making continued U.S. participation untenable.”

Specifically, Pompeo cited Russian restrictions on observation flights over Russian territory and alleged that Moscow “appears” to use treaty flights “in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions.”

Members of Congress, former government officials, U.S. allies, and Russia have said that these arguments are based on tendentious reasoning, beset by contradictions, and ignore positive benefits the treaty continues to provide. (See ACT, May 2020.)

Meanwhile, the fate of the treaty is in limbo. Several European treaty parties have said they plan to continue implementing the agreement, while Russia has not specified how it plans to proceed.

To further complicate matters, flights under the treaty have been suspended since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it is unclear when they will resume.

Signed in 1992, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

The Trump administration alleges that Russian limitations on flights over the Kaliningrad enclave and territory bordering Abkhazia and South Ossetia violate the treaty. Critics argue that the breaches do not defeat the object and purpose of the agreement and are resolvable through diplomacy.

The Kaliningrad issue focuses on Moscow’s demand to limit Open Skies missions over the enclave to less than 500 kilometers in total flight distance. The requirement followed a 2014 overflight by Poland that, according to a May 26 Russian Foreign Ministry paper, crossed “back and forth, thereby creating problems for the use of the region’s limited airspace and for the operation of the region’s only international airport” and “entailed serious financial costs.” Russia maintains that the 500-kilometer limit was “established in line with [Open Skies Treaty] provisions.”

In 2016, the United States responded to the sublimit by restricting flights over the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and the missile defense interceptor fields in Fort Greely, Alaska.

The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that whereas Western countries can still capture “from 77 to 98 percent of the territory” of Kaliningrad in an observation flight, Russia can observe “just 2.7 percent in Alaska.”

In February 2020, Russia allowed a flight over Kaliningrad by the United States, Estonia, and Lithuania that exceeded the 500-kilometer limit. On March 2, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe James Gilmore described the flight as “very cooperative.”

Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, acknowledged in a May 21 briefing that Russia permitted “a very slightly longer flight” over Kaliningrad but argued that the flight “doesn’t undermine the basic point that Russia clearly regards its Open Skies legal obligations as something akin more to guidelines or options for them.”

United States additionally asserts that Moscow not only violates a crucial clause of the treaty but also uses the clause to make a political claim with respect to Georgia.

Under the Open Skies Treaty, states-parties must open all of their territory to overflights, although Article VI prohibits flights within 10 kilometers of borders with countries that are not states-parties.

Russia is one of only a handful of countries that recognizes Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent from Georgia. As a result, Moscow has prohibited treaty flights within 10-kilometers of its border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as they are not states-parties to the Open Skies Treaty.

The Russian Foreign Ministry argues that “it is possible to reliably obtain images of these zones without flying over them” and that Georgia, a treaty party, is in violation of the accord by prohibiting Russian flights over Georgia.

In a June 22 letter to Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper criticizing the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the treaty, Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) write that “instead of withdrawing from the treaty, the United States should diplomatically engage Russia to resolve these issues as it has done successfully in the past, for example when Russian imposed limitations on flights over Chechnya.”

As for the allegation that Russia is misusing treaty flights over the United States to collect military-relevant intelligence, Ford said that he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.”

“[W]hile not a violation per se,” he added, “it’s clearly something that is deeply corrosive to the cause of building confidence and trust.”

There appears to be disagreement among military officials about how useful Russian flights are for intelligence gathering.

Vice Admiral Terry Benedict, the former head of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Program, told a Congressional hearing in 2016 that “the information Russia gleans from Open Skies is of only incremental value in addition to Russia’s other means of intelligence gathering.”

The treaty includes provisions that dictate the standards for equipment, including cameras and planes, used during a flight. No equipment is used that is not previously authorized by the states-parties.

Under the treaty, states-parties seeking to conduct an overflight must supply their flight plan at least 24 hours in advance to the host country. The host country then reviews the plan and can raise any concerns about safety or weather. When the flight does take off, there are also representatives of the host country on the plane alongside the observing states-parties to ensure all goes according to plan. All images taken on the flight must then be shared with the other parties to the agreement.

In addition to arguing that Russia is using the treaty to gather intelligence, the Trump administration and other opponents of the agreement also maintain that the treaty has outlived its usefulness and is based on outdated technology.

“[T]echnology has passed by the world of wet film and antiquated aircraft,” Marshall Billingslea, the president’s special envoy for arms control said on May 21. “You can download commercial imagery today in a matter of seconds that really meets the original intent of confidence-building measures in Europe.”

Critics argue that the administration cannot have it both ways. If the treaty is antiquated and replaceable by higher-resolution commercial satellite images, how is Russia using it to capture irreplaceable images of critical U.S. infrastructure?

Russia has responded to the U.S. allegation that it is misusing the treaty by stating that the United States, when flying over Russia, “film[s] not only parks and beaches.” Since the treaty entered into force, the United States has flown over Russia about three times more frequently than Russia has flown over the United States.

A former senior official told Arms Control Today that the United States and its allies have made use of treaty flights “to track infrastructure that it’s otherwise hard to photograph in a single satellite pass.” This includes imagery of Russian rail lines, “which has helped us to understand more about military transport potential, including for nuclear warheads.” The official said the United States has also used the treaty “to help preview inspection sites for…nuclear treaties,” such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and to photograph Russia’s nuclear test site at Novaya Zemlya.

The Trump administration has told allies that it is exploring options to provide more imagery products to them to address any gaps that might result from the U.S. withdrawal. Many treaty members, including the Baltic states, do not have their own aircraft with which to conduct flights.

But sharing such sensitive imagery may be easier said than done.

Pranay Vaddi, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department official, tweeted on May 28 that it takes time to downgrade sensitive images and then coordinate with allies that might have different domestic procedures for handling such information.

He added that “commercial imagery will be contested as if it's [intelligence] information” and “be called unofficial, doctored, biased, etc.”

Pompeo noted in his May 21 statement that the administration might reconsider the treaty withdrawal decision “if Russia demonstrates a return to full compliance with this confidence-building treaty.” Most observers believe, however, that there is little hope the United States will return to the treaty given the wide-ranging reasons the administration has given for its decision to leave.

According to Article XV of the treaty, no more than two months after a state-party decides to withdraw, a conference of the states-parties must take place so as “to consider the effect of the withdrawal on this Treaty.” Canada and Hungary, the depositaries of the treaty, have scheduled this meeting, to be conducted by remote communication, for July 6.

Many allies have expressed regret about the U.S. decision and indicated that they will continue to implement the accord as they still view it as “functioning and useful.” (See ACT, May 2020.)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on June 23 that “we will see the reaction of our Western colleagues during this conference, what Europe thinks about it.”

“We don’t rule out any options of our actions,” he added.

Trump administration justifications for withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty are being challenged from many sides.

U.S. Continues Stalling on New START | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, June 26, 2020

U.S. Continues Stalling on New START The United States and Russia concluded the latest round of their strategic security dialogue June 22 without agreeing to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), the last remaining arms control agreement limiting their nuclear arsenals. The United States is “leaving all options available” on the future of the treaty, said Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea, who led the U.S. delegation at the talks in Vienna, during a June 24 briefing in Brussels. “We are willing to contemplate an extension of that agreement but...

Debating US nuclear spending in the age of the coronavirus


Originally published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 10, 2020.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to exact a terrible human and economic toll on the United States, Americans are adjusting how they view national security. There also appears to be agreement, even within the senior leadership of the Defense Department, that the military budget, which has seen significant growth during the Trump administration, is likely to be pared back in the coming years as federal deficits soar.

So it should be no surprise that the havoc wrought by the virus has also fanned the flames of an ongoing debate about the Trump administration’s aggressive and costly plans to sustain and upgrade the US nuclear arsenal.

But some supporters of the status quo will not countenance any challenge to business as usual. In an April 17 conversation hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Frank Miller, a distinguished former US government official, argued that it is illegitimate and irresponsible to cite the current public health and economic crisis as a rationale to rethink US nuclear weapons spending priorities. A close examination reveals, however, that his reasoning is deeply flawed.

The unsustainable nuclear budget. At the Arms Control Association, where I am the director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, we have long argued that the administration’s approach is unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe. The financial and opportunity costs have steadily grown and the biggest nuclear weapons modernization bills are just beginning to arrive. Government officials in charge of the nuclear weapons enterprise warn about the “pervasive and overwhelming risk” facing the current nuclear modernization program.

The danger posed by the plans is on full display in the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request.

The Defense and Energy Departments are requesting $44.5 billion for next year to sustain and modernize US 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. Meanwhile, the administration is recommending a lower overall national defense budget than Congress provided last year.

The combination of a decreased topline budget but an increased nuclear budget means that other defense programs would have to be cut. Some programs on the chopping block include the Navy’s planned second Virginia class submarine, the Energy Department’s efforts to clean up nuclear waste leftover from US nuclear weapons production during the Cold War, and the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which supports global efforts to detect and secure dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus.

And this was all before the coronavirus began its deadly march across the country and before Congress spent several trillion dollars trying to save the US economy from complete collapse.

Although Pentagon officials insist that nuclear weapons should be shielded from possible future defense budget cuts, the pressure on the federal budget imposed by the response to the virus is likely to exacerbate the affordability and execution challenges confronting the administration’s nuclear spending plans. If great power competition with China is the Pentagon’s top priority, is it prudent to sacrifice a Virginia class submarine every year for the next 10 to 15 years to attempt to keep an excessive and overburdened nuclear modernization effort on track? The answer should be no, especially in light of the quantitative and qualitative superiority of the US nuclear arsenal over China’s.

In the view of many, the Trump administration’s proposal to expand spending on nuclear weapons is a sad and dangerous illustration of wildly misplaced federal spending priorities. As it proposed a 19 percent increase for nuclear weapons next year, the White House initially planned to slash the budgets for the Centers for Disease Control by 19 percent and the National Institutes of Health by 7 percent. The Pentagon’s proposal to cut the budget for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program in order to fund weapons modernization amid a global pandemic is shockingly reckless.

“How can we prepare and arm ourselves so completely for wars that may never come,” wrote Tyler Rogoway, editor of The Drive, in March, “but we are so ill-prepared for one that we knew was more likely around the corner than not?”

Inexplicably, the unprecedented economic crisis facing the nation hasn’t stopped some Trump administration officials from raising the prospect of even greater spending on nuclear weapons above and beyond what is already planned. Marshall Billingslea, President Trump’s special envoy for arms control, said recently that if Russia and China don’t agree to US demands for talks on new trilateral arms control to replace the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Washington could win a new arms race if necessary. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said.

More US spending on nuclear weapons won’t force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate and would be fraught with peril. The administration’s desire to pursue a more ambitious arms control agreement is the right goal, but it can’t be achieved before New START is slated to expire next February. A new quantitative arms race that could follow the collapse of New START would further undermine stability between the United States and Russia, the health of the global nonproliferation regime, and the US military’s emphasis on competition with China.

Our new post-pandemic reality should make it all the more obvious that the current modernization plans need to be reconsidered in a way that eliminates the most excessive and destabilizing elements, saves taxpayer dollars for other pressing national and health security needs, and is in sync with a revitalized and realistic strategy to cap and reduce global nuclear stockpiles.

A debate on nuclear weapons policy. In an article published on the Arms Control Association website in March, Shannon Bugos and I criticized the 2021 budget request for nuclear weapons and made the case for a different approach. The critique apparently struck a nerve with supporters of the Trump plans.

In his remarks for the Mitchell Institute event, Miller alleged that our organization is part of a nefarious disarmament cabal and attempted a point-by-point rebuttal of the purported “body of lies” and “dangerous recommendations” contained in our article. He claimed that our critique “comes from a group of people who have never felt the burden of public responsibility and public office in defense of this nation and our allies.” (In reality, nearly half of the Arms Control Association’s 17-member board of directors has served in government in some capacity, including several board members who have served at the Defense Department.)

Miller published an expanded version of his remarks earlier this month in Real Clear Defense.

But a review of what we actually wrote reveals that Miller either did not read our article or deliberately chose to distort its contents. Below I respond to each of his assertions.

The growing costs. Miller’s claim: “The projected cost of the [nuclear] modernization program as a percentage of the defense budget is not growing.”

Response: The projected cost of nuclear weapons, both in actual dollars and as a percentage of the national defense budget, is clearly growing, and doing so more quickly than anticipated.

The Pentagon request for 2021 of $28.9 billion to sustain and modernize the triad of nuclear delivery systems and supporting command and control infrastructure is a large increase above this year’s appropriated level of $24.8 billion. As we noted, the requested amounts are consistent with the projected spending levels for these programs contained in previous budget submissions.

The request for the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration nuclear weapons program, however, is far larger than anticipated. The submission calls for $15.6 billion, an astonishing increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal 2020 appropriation, and $2.8 billion more than the projection for 2021 contained in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. Over the next five years, the National Nuclear Security Administration 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.

Miller, echoing arguments often made by Pentagon officials, claims that even at its projected peak in 2029, spending on nuclear weapons will consume no more than 6 to 7 percent of total Pentagon spending. But this is misleading, unless you think a credible deterrent can be maintained without having actual warheads.

The 6 to 7 percent figure doesn’t include spending at the National Nuclear Security Administration. When that is included, nuclear weapons already account for 6 percent of the total 2021 national defense budget request and will rise to 7 percent by 2024. Given the rate at which that agency’s budget is exploding, probable future cost overruns in the delivery system modernization programs, and the likelihood of flat overall defense budgets (at best) for the foreseeable future, it is conceivable that spending on nuclear weapons could approach 10 percent of national defense spending by the late 2020s.

Miller can claim that the growing modernization bill is worth the price. But he can’t claim that the price tag isn’t growing.

A bigger stockpile. Miller’s claim: “You can search the 2018 [Nuclear Posture Review] from cover to cover without finding any policy which supports expanding the US nuclear warhead stockpile.”

Response: It is true that the Trump administration is not currently planning to grow the size of the arsenal. But we never claimed otherwise. Instead, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review contains several proposed initiatives that support preparing the United States to grow the size of the stockpile in the event of a future decision to do so. Examples include: providing “the enduring capability and capacity to produce plutonium pits at a rate of no fewer than 80 pits per year by 2030”; exploring “approaches for rapid [warhead] prototyping”; assessing “the potential for retired warheads and components to augment the future hedge stockpile”; and reducing “the time required to design, develop, and initially produce a warhead, from a decision to enter full-scale development.”

According to Madelyn Creedon, former deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration during the Obama administration, the Nuclear Posture Review “lays out a long-term plan to prepare the United States to develop, test, and deploy new nuclear weapons and to increase the size of the nuclear stockpile. In short, prepare for a new arms race.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s needs. Miller’s claim: “There should be no cause for uncertainty about the crying need for increased funding for [the National Nuclear Security Administration].”

Response: For 2021, the National Nuclear Security Administration has requested a large unplanned increase, totaling $15.6 billion for weapons activities. To many, such an increase was surprising: The agency said only last year that its 2020 budget plan was “fully consistent” with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and “affordable and executable.” Under that proposal, the agency did not plan to request more than $15 billion for weapons activities until 2030!

So, what changed? Lisa Gordon Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, was asked to explain the rationale for such a large unplanned increase at a Congressional hearing in March, but her attempt at an answer hardly cleared up the situation. Perhaps there is a clearer explanation for why the agency so badly misjudged its funding needs for 2021, but if so the agency has yet to provide it.

Plutonium pit production. Miller’s claim: “The comment that building 80 pits per year is unprecedented just doesn’t even work within their own circles.”

Response: At no point did we claim that the National Nuclear Security Administration’s effort to build at least 80 pits per year is unprecedented. What we actually wrote, citing an Institute for Defense Analyses report published last year, is that there is “no historical precedent” for the agency’s plan to go from the current production level of zero pits per year to 80 pits per year by 2030. The Institute for Defense Analyses report could not be clearer: “No available option can be expected to provide 80 pits per year by 2030.”

The right size for the arsenal. Miller’s claim: “It’s also absurd in the extreme … to argue that the size of the current arsenal is more than is required for deterrence.”

Response: It’s not at all absurd to argue that the size of the current US nuclear arsenal is more than is required for deterrence of adversaries and assurance of allies.

In 2013, the Obama administration determined that deterrence requirements could be met with one-third fewer deployed New START-accountable strategic nuclear forces. Yet Obama did not immediately reduce the size of America’s nuclear force, despite concluding that deterrence could be achieved by even a unilateral reduction.

Miller is of course free to argue that further reductions in the arsenal should only occur bilaterally with Russia (or trilaterally with Russia and China) or that the current security environment is such that further reductions aren’t advisable. But in that case the burden of proof is on him to explain the logic that presumes Moscow and Beijing would not be deterred by 1,000 nuclear warheads deployed on hundreds of delivery systems but are deterred by the 1,550 warheads deployed today.

The burden is also on him to explain why the current modernization plans should be funded next year at the expense of the Navy’s conventional shipbuilding account, defense environmental cleanup, and the Cooperative Threat Reduction program—and likely at the expense of similar such cuts in future years. A Virginia class submarine would seem to be far more relevant to great power competition with China than a one-year increase in funds for an agency that said last year it didn’t need those funds and is unlikely to be able to spend them.

Nuclear war fighting. Miller’s claim: “There is that old canard, the ever-popular bloody flag that US policy is based on nuclear war fighting, not on deterrence.”

Response: In our article and elsewhere we advocate for a nuclear strategy that deemphasizes nuclear war fighting by opposing the Trump administration’s proposal to double the number of low-yield nuclear options in the US nuclear arsenal. Miller and other supporters of expanding the number of such options claim that doing so would strengthen deterrence and raise the nuclear threshold.

But the purported deterrent value of additional low-yield options is premised on the concern that adversaries might think the United States would be self-deterred from a more difficult to use higher-yield response. Indeed, Pentagon officials repeatedly argue that policy makers cannot simply assume that a possible nuclear conflict will inevitably escalate to massive nuclear use. They assert that the United States must plan and prepare to be able to prevail in a limited nuclear conflict.

While we do not advocate for the elimination of low-yield weapons from the US nuclear arsenal, we reject the notion that heightening their role is necessary or stabilizing. Placing greater emphasis on low-yield options risks spawning more planning for their use and belief, including by our adversaries, that such use can be controlled, thereby risking a lowering of the threshold for nuclear use.

The future nuclear submarine fleet. Miller’s claim: “The idea that the size of the Columbia class … should be cut, betrays either complete dishonesty, and there’s a lot of that in their pitch, or total ignorance of industrial reality. Cutting boats 11 and 12 and possibly 13 and 14 won’t solve the fiscal problem the [Arms Control Association] has raised with regard to coronavirus.”

Response: At no point have we ever claimed that eliminating two to four submarines from the planned Columbia class purchase would solve the fiscal challenges facing the Pentagon. In fact, we clearly stated in our article that “pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending.”

What we argue is that changes to the nuclear replacement effort, including the Columbia class program, could make the effort easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise, choices that are likely to get even harder amid constrained defense budgets. According to the Congressional Budget Office, eliminating two to four boats at the back end of the planned 12-boat Columbia class purchase would save during the 2030s between $17 and $36 billion in fiscal year 2017 dollars. Buying two additional boats as suggested by Miller would cost an additional $16 billion.

Land-based forces. Miller’s claim: “The idea of extending the Minuteman [III] force has been studied and studied and studied. You just can’t do this safely.”

Response: We disagree that it is not possible to further extend the life of the Minuteman III, as explained in detail in an article in War on the Rocks. A 2014 Air Force study and a 2014 RAND Corporation study both concluded that extending the life of the Minuteman III would be possible. The latter suggested that delaying the development of a new missile by 20 years could save nearly $40 billion dollars through the mid-2030s.

Air-launched cruise missiles. Miller’s claim: “The absurd notion … that nuclear tipped cruise missiles are uniquely destabilizing is a notion unique to American disarmers.… Abandoning the [Long Range Stand Off weapon] will also condemn the B-21 to fly directly into advanced enemy defenses in the decades to come.”

Response: We also disagree with Miller about the case for building a new fleet of nuclear air-launched cruise missiles via the Long Range Stand Off program.

Concerns about the escalation risks associated with weapons systems that have both conventional and nuclear variants is hardly a concern unique to American disarmers. As Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, former commander of US European Command, warned in 2017: “One of the things that you see that is disturbing is the fact that [the Russians] are using similar weapon systems that can either be conventional or nuclear, which then makes it difficult for us to clearly understand what they have employed.”

Miller worries that attempting to drop a nuclear gravity bomb (the B61-12) over a heavily defended target is too risky and might not succeed. But if the Air Force believes the stealth capabilities of the B-21 (which is still under development) could be compromised soon after it is deployed, then it is reasonable to question the service’s strategy for buying the bomber and retaining nuclear gravity bombs in the first place. For its part, US Strategic Command does not appear concerned about the long-term survivability of the B-21. As Gen. Hyten told Congress in July 2017, “It’s not the survivability of the bombers, it’s the ability of the bombers to access targets.” By this Hyten meant that while bombers armed with nuclear gravity bombs can only attack one target at a time, the Long Range Stand Off weapon provides each bomber the ability to attack multiple targets at one time.

It is not surprising that military planners would want many different ways of attacking a target. But the weapons associated with the other two legs of the nuclear triad–the sea- and land-based forces–can also penetrate air defenses and strike targets anywhere on the planet with high confidence.

New warheads. Miller’s claim: “Calling for a halt to upgraded US ballistic missile warheads and abandoning the ability to build new nuclear pits reveals a gross ignorance.”

Response: We did not call for the United States to abandon this ability. On the contrary, we suggested that the National Nuclear Security Administration aim for a less ambitious pit production capacity of 30 to 50 pits per year by 2035. So long as the United States remains a nuclear-armed state, it needs and should have the ability to produce plutonium cores for nuclear warhead refurbishment. But the current goal of producing 80 pits per year by 2030 is almost certainly unachievable. And it is unnecessary. As American University’s Sharon Weiner has noted, “assessing the underlying assumptions makes clear there are credible alternatives to the scale and planned start date for pit production.”

The need for increased pit production could be reduced by pursuing less technically ambitious warhead life extension programs. For example, a near-term driver of establishing a production capacity of 80 pits annually is to support the replacement of the W78 warhead with the new W87-1. But there are alternatives that would not require a new pit for the W87-1, or at least not as many new pits as currently planned. These alternatives include a smaller intercontinental ballistic missile force, a less ambitious upgrade for the W78, or storing or retiring the W78 and relying on just one warhead for the land-based missile force.

In addition, there is no need to accelerate the development of a newly-designed submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, known as the W93, as proposed in the fiscal 2021 budget request. The existing W76-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead just completed a major life extension program that prolonged its service life until at least 2040. The existing W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, which is the youngest warhead in the stockpile, is undergoing a significant upgrade and is not expected to require further refurbishment until at least the late 2030s. It is also highly unlikely that the National Nuclear Security Administration will be able to support three major submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead modernization programs in the 2030s.

Modernization as leverage. Miller’s claim: “Finally, it must be noted that the disarmament community’s call to reduce the US nuclear modernization program paradoxically jeopardizes the achievement of one of the community’s highest priority goals: achieving a new arms control treaty with Russia and potentially also with China.”

Response: The notion that changes to the modernization program would undermine America’s ability to bring Russia and China to the negotiating table is unconvincing. First, even if the modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce any new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest. Second, there is little evidence to suggest that the Obama administration’s support for an extensive modernization program provided the administration with leverage during its second term to convince Moscow to join talks on nuclear reductions below New START. Third, Moscow has identified constraints on US non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts. Fourth, the United States has long had a superior nuclear arsenal to China, but China has refused to participate in arms control.

In a democracy, national defense and nuclear policy plans, options, and trade-offs warrant scrutiny. We welcome serious debate; not distortions about our analysis and recommendations.

Read the original article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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U.S. to Withdraw From Open Skies Treaty

June 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States officially notified its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, prompting bipartisan opposition in Congress and expressions of regret from U.S. allies.

Danish F-16 fighter aircraft escort a Russian observation aircraft during a flight over Denmark in 20008. (Photo: OSCE)President Donald Trump justified the withdrawal decision on the grounds that Russia was violating the agreement, but he said, “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that the withdrawal will take effect in six months. “We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty,” Pompeo added.

Pompeo cited Russian noncompliance with the accord as “making continued U.S. participation untenable.” The United States asserts that Russia has violated the agreement by requiring that observation missions over Kaliningrad limit flight paths to 500 kilometers, establishing a 10-kilometer no-fly corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and denying a requested overflight by the United States and Canada in September 2019.

Pompeo also alleged that “Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions.”

Pressed to provide further information on this allegation on May 21, Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.” He then added, “[W]hile not a violation per se, it’s clearly something that is deeply corrosive to the cause of building confidence and trust.”

Asked about what Russia would need to do in order to return to compliance with the treaty, Ford said, “I would say that that’s a fact pattern we’ll have to deal with when we encounter it.”

The Defense Department said in a statement that “we will explore options to provide additional imagery products to Allies to mitigate any gaps that may result from this withdrawal.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. exit from the agreement in a May 22 statement, calling it “a deplorable development for European security.”

On the U.S. allegation that Russia is using the treaty to gather inappropriate intelligence, the statement said the “charge is being made by the party that insisted from the beginning on opening the entire territory of the participating states (above all, naturally, the [Soviet Union] and later Russia) to observation flights.”

The statement added that Russia’s future participation in the treaty “will be based on its national security interests and in close cooperation with its allies and partners.”

U.S. allies expressed varied responses to the U.S. exit from the treaty, but none of them signaled support for the move or indicated that they plan to follow the United States out of the agreement.

In a joint statement, 11 European countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) expressed “regret” over the U.S. decision.

“We will continue to implement the Open Skies Treaty, which has a clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security,” they said. “We reaffirm that this treaty remains functioning and useful.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia to return to compliance with the treaty after a May 22 meeting of the North Atlantic Council. He said that the United States withdrew in a manner “consistent with treaty provisions.”

Poland said in a statement that efforts to return Russia to compliance “have proved unsuccessful.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Germany, along with France, Poland, and the United Kingdom, had previously told Washington that Russian noncompliance concerns did not justify a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.

Prior to the U.S. decision to withdraw, the Trump administration consulted U.S. allies and other states-parties to the treaty, including by distributing a written questionnaire earlier this year. Throughout the process, allies expressed their support for continued U.S. participation in the treaty. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Several Democratic and Republican members of Congress excoriated the withdrawal decision and accused the administration of breaking the law.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, called the Trump administration's move to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty a "dangerous and misguided decision."(Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images)“The dangerous and misguided decision to abandon this international agreement cripples our ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia, while allowing Russian reconnaissance flights over U.S. bases in Europe to continue,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) first sounded the alarm about the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw the United States from the treaty last October. (See ACT, November 2019.) Reacting to the withdrawal announcement, he said that “the president’s reckless plan…directly harms our country’s security and breaks the law in the process.”

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required that the Trump administration notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which it failed to do. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that he does “not accept the legitimacy of the administration’s reckless decision.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the committee’s strategic forces subcommittee, echoed the legal concerns and called the withdrawal “a slap in the face to our allies in Europe.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents Offutt Air Force Base, where America’s OC-135B treaty aircraft are based, called the administration’s decision a “mistake.” He also urged that the administration adhere to the requirements in the defense authorization bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a longtime treaty critic, voiced support for the withdrawal. He said that he was “particularly heartened” that the United States would now not have to fund the replacement efforts for the two treaty aircraft.

Congress appropriated $41.5 million last year to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. All imagery collected from overflights is then made available to any of the 34 states-parties.

Since 2002, there have been nearly 200 U.S. overflights of Russia and about 70 overflights conducted by Russia over the United States. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 1,500 flights took place.


Citing Russian noncompliance, the Trump administration has triggered the Open Skies Treaty’s withdrawal provision.

U.S., Russia to Meet on Arms Control

June 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia have agreed to discuss nuclear arms control issues, according to U.S. President Donald Trump’s arms control envoy following a May 8 phone call.

Marshall Billingslea, shown speaking in Latvia in 2019, has been tapped to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He outlined the Trump administration's plans at a May event at the Hudson Institute.  (Photo: Latvian State Chancellery)Marshall Billingslea, whom Trump also has nominated to serve as U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov agreed “to meet, talk about our respective concerns and objectives, and find a way forward to begin negotiations” on a new arms control agreement.

“So, we have settled on a venue, and we are working on an agenda based on the exchange of views that has taken place,” he said.

Billingslea described the conversation during May 21 remarks at a Hudson Institute event in Washington, where he also criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and sketched out some of the Trump administration’s goals for a new trilateral agreement with Russia and China.

New START expires in February 2021 unless Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to extend it by up to five years. Russia stated in December 2019 that it is ready to extend New START without any preconditions, but the Trump administration has yet to make a decision on the treaty’s fate.

“Any potential extension of our existing obligations must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control,” Billingslea emphasized on May 21. Earlier, in a May 7 interview with The Washington Times, he also stated that the administration wants “to understand why the Russians are so desperate for extension, and we want the Russians to explain to us why this is in our interest to do it.”

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. Under its monitoring and verification regime, the treaty allows for short notice, on-site inspections.

Billingslea views the agreement as flawed. “One main failing of New START, among the many problems with it, is that it does not include the Chinese,” he told the newspaper.

Bringing China into nuclear talks would appear to be a challenging task, particularly as China has repeatedly stated that it wants no part in them. Most recently, a Chinese spokesperson told reporters on May 15 that Beijing “has no intention to take part in a trilateral arms control negotiation.” Even Billingslea’s State Department predecessor, Andrea Thompson, said on May 14 “that China’s not going to come to the table before” New START expires next February. “There’s no incentive for them to come to the table,” she said, citing China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.

But Billingslea insisted that Beijing could be incentivized to negotiate.

“If China wants to be a great power, and we know it has that self-image, it needs to behave like one,” he said May 21. “It should engage us bilaterally and trilaterally with the Russians.”

Billingslea added that “Russia must help bring China to the negotiating table.” Moscow previously said that it
will not try to persuade China to change its position.

He further asserted that the United States would hold Russia to its “public commitments to multilateralizing the next treaty after New START.” Moscow has long said that a future arms control agreement should include additional nuclear-armed states, including U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom.

A new agreement also must include Russia’s large arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and stronger verification measures than those contained in New START, Billingslea argued.

Billingslea did not say what the United States might be prepared to put on the table in return for limits on additional Russian weapons or concessions from China, nor did he clarify what precisely the administration is seeking from China on arms control.

Russia has frequently raised missile defense as an issue that must be on the table in the next round of arms control talks, but the special envoy said that he did not foresee the United States agreeing to limitations on missile defense.

Billingslea claimed that the United States is in a strong negotiating position and could win a new arms race if necessary.

“We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said. “If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

Russia criticized Billingslea’s May 7 interview with The Washington Times. “The unmistakable impression” is that Billingslea “has not been brought up to speed on his new job,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on May 14.

She also noted that the Trump administration’s desire to include China in arms control talks was “far-fetched.”

Trump and Putin discussed arms control on a May 7 phone call.

“President Trump reaffirmed that the United States is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to future discussions to avoid a costly arms race,” said the White House in a statement following the call. The statement made no mention of New START.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the two presidents agreed to work to resolve “the urgent problems of our time, including maintaining strategic stability.”

The United States and Russia last held formal talks on strategic security in January. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said on May 5 that Trump had agreed to Russia’s January proposal that the heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) hold a summit to discuss a broad range of security topics, including arms control.

“It’s my understanding that the substance and logistics of such a meeting are under consideration,” said Sullivan.

On April 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that all parties agreed that the summit “must be face to face.” He added two days later that “the conceptual content” of the summit is in the works.

“There is agreement, an understanding,” Lavrov said, “that it should be devoted to all the key problems of the modern world, strategic stability, and global security in all its dimensions.”

In Washington, Billingslea could be facing a controversial Senate confirmation process before he can officially assume the position to which Trump named him on May 1. Some senators are likely to question his reputation as a critic of arms control and to examine his human rights record. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing.

Billingslea previously served as assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. He was an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed U.S. ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In 2019, Trump nominated Billingslea for the top human rights post at the State Department, but his nomination stalled in early 2020 amid concerns about his role in promoting enhanced interrogation techniques that Congress later banned as torture while serving in the Pentagon from 2002 to 2003 during the George W. Bush administration.


Officials have agreed on a venue to discuss arms control, but not an agenda.


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